Farmers offered efficiency bonuses

Compensation of Dh100,000 for cutting water usage and replacing Rhodes grass with other crops, as well as raising livestock.

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Farmers left out of pocket by cuts to government subsidies have been offered bonuses that officials say will cut water use while increasing the amount of produce grown locally.

Thousands of farmers in Al Gharbia used to be paid a high, subsidised price for their crops of Rhodes grass, which is used in animal feed.

But Rhodes grass is an extremely thirsty crop, and in an effort to discourage farmers from growing it, the subsidy - which cost the government Dh800 million in its first year alone - was halted last month. In its place, farmers will be given a Dh100,000 bonus if they follow official guidelines intended to improve efficiency. According to Ali al Mazrouei, a farmer in Madinet Zayed, the money is roughly equal to the income he used to earn from selling his crop of Rhodes grass.

"We should be growing all the grass that we use and vegetables ourselves, there shouldn't be the need to get it from outside," he said. Under the new scheme, farmers get a Dh90,000 grant if they follow its rules. They will also be offered advice on improving date crops, which can earn the farmers an additional Dh10,000 if they market the dates through certified organic farms, farms with certificates of good practice, or Al Foah Company, the government firm in charge of marketing dates.

The new scheme requires farmers to stop planting Rhodes grass and to remain members of the Farmers' Services Centre. They are not allowed to sublet their farms, or to use them for anything other than farming. They are also required to follow the services centre's guidelines on irrigation and maintenance.

"The programme is being introduced to encourage farm owners to adopt agricultural programmes that are economically profitable, marketable and competitive," said David O'Brien, the chief executive of the services centre.

Beyond that, according to Mohamed al Reyaysa, the communications director of the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority, the aim is to "create a balance between the environment, farmers having quality products in the market, and farmers being in a position to earn an income from the farms". Instead of Rhodes grass the service centre is suggesting farmers grow wheat or barley, which can be fed green to livestock.

The centre is also encouraging farmers to raise sheep and goats, which can either graze in the fields or be fed fresh cut grass directly. Abu Dhabi's per capita water usage is already among the highest in the world at 550 litres a day, with many farms in al Gharbia using fresh water from wells for irrigation. Under the new rules, farms can only dig one well per hectare, putting them under pressure to use as little water as possible.

The scheme will help them install better, more efficient irrigation systems. According to Mr al Mazrouei, the Dh10,000 amount might not be enough to encourage farmers to invest in expanding their date crops, but he thinks the Government should be doing more to encourage profitable farming. "I think another good step would be setting up greenhouses on the farms," he said. "We stop growing grass, then this year earn an income from dates, and then next year we'll start growing more dates or vegetables."