No water? No problem for these Jordanian farmers.
By finding new markets for vegetables that require little water, a handful of Jordanian farmers are proving that agriculture can prosper in a dry land.
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"We're planting so much ... the prices of that produce goes really, really low," explains Abdel Rahman Sultan of Friends of the Earth Middle East, an environmental advocacy group. Tomatoes sell for an average of 8.5 cents per pound, according to government figures.Skip to next paragraph
By contrast, Shukri makes a healthy profit with the patented Coregeo Tenderstem broccoli that he grows and packages: Three kilograms (6.6 pounds) of broccoli takes only about a cubic meter of desalinated water – which costs between 30 and 60 cents – to produce. Shukri makes about $2.50 per pound selling the broccoli to British supermarkets.
Sustainability in question
But some question whether any farm exports are sustainable, given Jordan's shortage of water. "We just simply cannot accept [exporting produce] no matter how much you charge," says Mr. Sultan. "We're in the middle of the desert! We're at the center of climate change. We cannot afford to lose our water just for the sake of making a few people richer."
Some of Jordan's most productive farmers say this antifarm attitude is part of the problem, because the government doesn't require practices that could make agriculture more sustainable. They say that water waste is at more than 50 percent.
Farmers like Shukri are trying to show that, with proper management, agriculture can not only survive but profit, and can support the higher cost of using nontraditional water sources.
It's true that running a high-tech operation requires serious investment, as well as work to maintain the exacting health and environmental standards demanded by Europeans. But that investment produces jobs in administration, research and development, and materials and packaging, argues Shukri.
Souheil Marto, who took over Modern Valley Farms when Shukri left in 2008 says that he has 12 staff members just to do paperwork for health certifications. The farm also employs 300 local women in its fields and processing plants, as well as some foreign workers.
Mr. Marto recently moved into packaged foods; his first coup was the salads for McDonald's. "Now we are looking into adding more things to that, because the more you go in this direction, the more value you can add to your product," he says.
Nearby, Shukri and a partner have started their own venture, called DAMCO. Concerned about his farm's carbon footprint, Shukri is researching freshness bags that will allow him to transport produce to Europe by truck, rather than air. Marto is looking for money to build a wind or solar generator on his farm.
The two farmers may be anomalies for now. But they argue that if farm water-use practices don't change, Jordan's future in agriculture will be in doubt.