Welcome to Abu Dhabi's agricultural future

Food is of strategic importance to Abu Dhabi with improving yields key to guaranteeing future supplies. Now a model farm is showcasing the benefits of integrated farming.

Workers at the farm in Madinat Zayed in the Western Region. The integrated practices have resulted in the farm becoming close to self-sufficient. Photos Ravindranath K / The National

To the untrained eye, the vision of Abu Dhabi's agricultural future created on the humbly named number 46 farm in Madinat Zayed requires more than a little explanation.

Everything on the farm owned by Mohammed Said Al Mazrouei and his father is meticulous, but this is perhaps to be expected of a demonstration farm managed with the assistance of the Abu Dhabi Farmer's Service Centre (ADFSC), an organisation whose remit is transforming the emirate's farming sector.

The ADFSC's goals are to improve farming practices, produce higher yields of better-quality produce and ensure that Abu Dhabi's 24,000 farms have the potential to supply the local commercial market, and in doing so deliver a measure of food security.

The sight of sheep grazing on emerald pasture is even more surprising, especially in this part of the Western Region. It is also hugely photogenic, but even this fails to capture the attention of an impatient TV crew who have come to capture footage of potatoes and will settle for nothing less.

Food and farming make headlines. Not only are they are of vital strategic importance to Abu Dhabi but they also account, alongside the irrigation of parks and forestry, for 72 per cent of the emirate's total water consumption.

Unfortunately, food and agriculture are also highly technical and nuanced issues that require expertise, time, and a sense of the bigger picture if their complexities are to be understood by Abu Dhabi's food producers and consumers alike.

Potatoes are a case in point, having become increasingly popular as a cash crop in Abu Dhabi since Saudi Arabia suspended exports - the cost of producing them was so great they wanted to keep them for the home market.

While it is possible to grow potatoes successfully here, their long-term cultivation requires skill, soil cultivation and disease prevention, which make little sense in the context of the long-term environmental and agricultural challenges facing the UAE. Instead, the ADFSC is keen to promote honey, eggs, vegetables, dates, meat, and fodder production among local farmers, not least because there is an existing tradition of producing them.

The purpose of the demonstration farm is to display the benefits of integrated farming - the production of multiple forms of produce - on a single plot.

"This farm is the future," says Hindri Kuipers, the head of the livestock extension unit with the ADFSC. He has been working with his team of agricultural advisers to change farming practices in the Western Region for three years.

One of the biggest challenges has been to persuade farm owners to move their livestock out of the desert - where they are kept in rudimentary enclosures called ezba - and on to farms. "Local people used to have camels and very few sheep and goats because there was no irrigation," Mr Kuipers says.

"However, as the UAE developed, livestock ownership increased, and ezba developed."

Traditionally, farm owners were discouraged from keeping their livestock on farms and the current situation developed whereby farm workers have to deliver water and food to the desert on a regular basis.

Mr Kuipers accepts that keeping camels in the desert makes sense, but can see no good reason for keeping sheep and goats on an ezba. Not only is this practice inefficient but it has wider implications.

"Does any veterinarian go deep down into the desert to check the animals on a regular basis? That is very difficult. There is very little control over animal hygiene on the ezba, there's no breeding policy, no advice, no control," he says.

The other big issue with keeping sheep and goats on an ezba is the implications for the production and distribution of the fodder they need for their survival - 5 kilograms a day for every camel and 1.5kg a day for every sheep and goat.

"You have to take bales of fodder all the way out into the desert where vehicles can get stuck," Mr Kuipers says. "Why have all that hassle when you can grow fodder on the farm?" he asks.

Other than agriculture's water use, it is fodder, and the size of the government subsidy it attracts, that provides one of the most compelling arguments for the reform of Abu Dhabi's agricultural sector.

According to figures from the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority (ADFCA), goats, sheep and camels in the emirate consumed 4,509 tonnes of fodder a day in 2011 - about 1.645 million tonnes for the year.

Even when the revenue raised from that fodder was taken into consideration - the Government charges farm owners only 20 per cent of the market rate - that is a cost of about Dh197.49 million for the year.

Given the majority of Abu Dhabi's livestock is raised on family farms for the purposes of private consumption, the expenditure is not insignificant. Coupled with the fact that much of Abu Dhabi's fodder is imported from suppliers in countries such as Egypt, Sudan, Italy, the United States, Pakistan and Spain, the trade also represents an issue in terms of food security.

Since moving their livestock from their ezba in the desert on to the farm, the Al Mazrouei herd has increased to more than 400 head of sheep and goats and the farm-grown fodder has been able to support between 70 and 80 per cent of the herd's needs.

It is not necessary to be an agronomist to see that the economic, environmental and strategic implications of integrated farming and the potential savings there are to be made from a shift from more traditional to integrated farming practices. While the ADFSC's policies may sound very simple, they represent a radical transformation of the farming practices that have defined agriculture in Abu Dhabi's over the past 40 years. It is a shift that makes sense to the farm's owner, Mr Al Mazrouei.

"If you came and saw this farm at the start there was nothing green here, the only plants were date palms," he says.

"Now you see the animals here, the pasture, fruit trees. It is green, you have animals grazing and even the birds come here now. It has totally changed.

"Before we had to buy everything but now we have to buy only 20 to 30 per cent of the things we need. Everything else, even fertiliser, we now get from the farm."

Unfortunately, the only measure of the ADFSC's success will be the number of farm owners who convert to their cause.

While the intellectual argument for change may be self-evident and pressing, the impetus for the necessary financial and emotional investment by farm owners is less so, a situation that looks set to continue as long as so many farms continue to operate free from market forces that would encourage investment and impose increased efficiencies.

Mr Kuipers hopes family self-interest will act as a motivating force, even if economics do not.

"All of us, including the farmers, we are consumers now," he says.

"We like to be sure the things we eat are produced according to food-safety procedures.

"You have children, they also eat the same meat, so you'd like to know what antibiotics have been used and whether there is a withdrawal period that has been safeguarded. Integration allows you to ensure all of these things."