Jordanian farmers turn to strawberries and dates to use less water and maximise profits

Export markets develop for crops that consume less of the kingdom's water, but competition is fierce

Yacoub Miguel at his strawberry farm in Amman. Khaled Yacoub Oweis / The National
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The Middle East and North Africa is one of the most water-scarce regions of the world. Already plagued by a lack of freshwater resources, it also faces climate change, population growth and poor management, which threaten to affect the lives of millions.

The National’s correspondents across the region spoke to the people most affected to understand the extent of the issue and where hope for change may lie.

Yacoub Miguel visited an agricultural trade fair in Dubai a decade ago looking for contacts to market his vegetable crop, but no one was interested.

“I wanted to sell cucumbers and Gulf merchants were asking me if I had strawberries,” says Mr Miguel, a Jordanian farmer who studied agricultural engineering at Jordan University.

“When I went back, I converted my farm to strawberries.”

At his four-hectare farm on the road to Amman's international airport, Mr Miguel plants half a million saplings a year. These produce 250 tonnes of large strawberries with a sweet aftertaste, mostly for export to the Gulf and Europe.

Strawberries, which have a lucrative market abroad, consume relatively little of Jordan’s meagre water supply compared with thirsty crops that many farmers still cultivate, despite pressures on the irrigation system.

The mostly desert, aid-dependent kingdom's water supply is one of the world's most challenged. Yet bananas and citrus fruits are planted in Jordan’s lowlands.

Apricots, peaches and olives are grown in the kingdom’s desert, siphoning off non-replenishable aquifers.

Farming consumes more than half of Jordan’s water, but contributes less than 5 per cent to the economy, which is modestly sized at $45 billion.

Unlike popular crops such as tomatoes, strawberries require large investment and delicate technology to reduce their need for water.

Mr Miguel buys water from owners of licensed wells. Unlike outlying areas where water theft and illegal use is rife, the wells near Amman are well monitored by the authorities.

He has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into hydroponic irrigation, refrigeration and other infrastructure, as well as a computer system to manage the crop.

Hydroponics is a method of soilless farming, usually done in plastic houses. The technique helps save water and grow crops all year round.

Global supplies of strawberries typically dwindle by the end of September, because of natural production cycles, providing export opportunities for Jordanian strawberries, Mr Miguel says.

“Timing is important,” he says, pointing out that the plants need to be ready by April to take advantage of demand later in the year.

The strawberries are marketed under the brand Basateen Alordon (Jordan Groves). They are neither too crunchy, nor too soft.

“In a few more weeks, they will taste even better,” Mr Miguel says.

At Berlin’s Fruit Logistica Expo in February, Basateen Alordon’s stand was approached by Polish, Russian and German importers.

But the main market for the strawberries, and Jordanian produce in general, is the Gulf, with strawberry exports running at 6,000 tonnes a year.

The volumes are low compared with dates, another fruit demanded by Gulf and, lately, western customers. The fruit also consumes relatively little water.

Data from the Central Bank showed Jordan exported $175 million worth of fruits and nuts in the first 10 months of 2022, one of the driest seasons on record, compared with $250 million during the same period in 2020.

Date exports run at about $50 million a year and production is expanding at 15 per cent annually, according to the Jordanian Dates Association.

Businessman Amjad Tadros, who has a date farm in the Jordan Valley established by his late father, says he has not been able to grow the fruit fast enough to keep up with demand from the Gulf.

The Gulf market particularly calls for majhool, a wrinkled date that is left to dry on the palm tree, Mr Tadros says.

The date's name means “unknown” but is also widely called medjool. It is mainly grown in Israel and Palestine, although it accounts for 58 per cent of the 26,000 tonnes of dates produced in Jordan.

South Africa, Morocco, California and Saudi Arabia are also significant majhool producers.

Mr Tadros, who is a prominent journalist and a mechanical engineer, says he has been buying majhool from other farmers in the Jordan Valley, the kingdom’s main date-producing region, to send to Qatar and other Gulf markets.

But he says majhool requires specialist expertise in pollination, trimming and other aspects of its farming, as well as quality control for discerning Gulf customers.

He uses laser machines to measure the cracks in the majhool, and prices them accordingly.

“It is a very precise business,” says Mr Tadros, who leaves the technical aspects of production to specialists working on the farm.

Although production in Jordan is increasing, Mr Tadros says that Egypt is making large investments and could, in five years, carve out huge chunks of Gulf and western markets for majhool.

“Egypt is catching up,” Mr Tadros says. “We have to maintain the quality.”

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Updated: May 02, 2023, 1:50 PM