End to subsidy for farmers' Rhodes grass

The subsidies have been phased out because officials want the farmers to stop growing the grass, which accounts for three of every five litres of water used in agriculture.

September 22, 2010 / Abu Dhabi / (Rich-Joseph Facun / The National) Ali Musallam al Mazrouei (CQ), a farmer in Madinyat Zayed, stands amid Rhodes grass that he grows to feed his camels, Wednesday, September 22, 2010 in the Western Region.

MADINAT ZAYED // Ali al Mazroui once earned Dh11,000 a month from the grass he grows for animal feed on his farm. The end of a government subsidy has reduced that amount to between Dh4,000 and Dh5,000.

Mr al Mazroui, who farms in Madinat Zayed, sold his crop of Rhodes grass to the Government, which would process and resell it to farmers at a subsidized price. Nearly 5,000 other farmers in Al Gharbia did the same. The purchasing of Rhodes has been phased out because officials want the farmers to stop growing the grass, which accounts for three of every five litres of water used in agriculture.

But many of the farmers are unsure what to plant in its place. "Rhodes grass is such an important ingredient in keeping the farms going," Mr al Mazroui said. "It's a big difference." Mr al Mazroui is now growing vegetables and other kinds of grasses to try to make up the difference.

Since 2006, the agriculture department, and then its successor, the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority (ADFCA), had bought Rhodes grass from about 4,888 farms in Al Gharbia for Dh1.65 a kilo. It was processed, then sold as animal feed for just 30 fils a kilo. Mr al Mazroui, for example, sold almost seven tonnes of Rhodes grass to the government each month, pocketing Dh11,000, and in return bought 11.5 tonnes of feed for his camels for only Dh3,500.

But the scheme was expensive - the agriculture department paid out Dh800 million in the first year of the programme alone. Making matters worse, at 550 litres a day, Abu Dhabi's per-capita water usage is already among the highest in the world, so the Government is taking measures to conserve the precious commodity. In addition, many farms in al Gharbia use water from wells for irrigation, and the UAE's natural water supplies are expected to decline by as much as 16 per cent during the next decade. All of this makes water usage a pressing concern for authorities.

"We want to discourage water-intensive crops and other environmentally undesirable practices," said Mohamed al Reyaysa, the communications director at the ADFCA. The authority has imported around 1.25 million tonnes of animal feed to make up for the loss in locally grown crops. "I have to feed my camels. And now I'm using Rhodes and other grasses imported from Australia. That's what everybody's using right now," said Mr al Mazroui. "Even in the camel-racing events, camels are fed with [the more nutrient-rich grasses], and not the Rhodes. So, in the long run, this change is actually on the positive end."

Mr al Mazroui did try to plan ahead for the loss of subsidies. Last year he began growing jet grass, which is higher in nutrients, to feed his livestock. "I started growing it a year ago, and when the change in selling the Rhodes became official, I invested more in it." Other farmers are being encouraged to follow suit. And the ADFCA wants them to shift into more salt-tolerant grasses, such as sporobolus, saltbush, wheat or barley, and to graze livestock directly on the grass, instead of harvesting it for processing. The Farmer's Services Centre (FSC), a government-backed advisory body, is providing the farmers with technical support and training to help them make the transition. The authority estimates the changes will reduce water consumption by 40 per cent between April and September, the hottest months of the year.

However, seeds for the new crops are in short supply, and the ADFCA said there will not be enough of them to replace all crops of Rhodes grass this year. "There will be a shortage of seeds for long-term fodder type crops," said Ray Moule, the business development manager at the FSC. "So, even if we came forward with salt-tolerant fodder, there aren't any real quantity of seeds for farmers to get a hold of."

The FSC is instead recommending that farmers grow barley or corn this season, seeds of which are abundant. The FSC, in partnership with the International Centre for Biosaline Research, is working to establish seed stocks of salt-tolerant grasses. Some of the farmers are not entirely sorry to see the subsidy programme go, acknowledging that there had been problems with its administration. For example, the cards entitling farmers to buy subsidised hay had been subject to abuse.

The cards were issued to livestock owners in 2006, but some farmers had since sold their herds and continued to use the cards to buy cheap hay, which they exported, pocketing the profit. "We can use each other's cards to get these aids. It's not 'politically correct' as such, but everybody does it," said Mr al Mazroui. In response, ADFCA has banned the export of animal feed, and is now planning an Emirates-wide livestock census.

After that, it will create a database to track animal births, slaughter and sales.