If water for farming is precious in this desert kingdom, the money, energy, and desire to make the desert bloom are available in vast quantities. By next year's harvest, Saudi Arabia, at great cost, will be self-sufficient in wheat production, says C.K. (Buck) Cardwell, an American agriculture specialist. Mr. Cardwell, head of a 12-member advising team to the Saudi Agriculture Bank, says that even if overall Saudi development slows (as the petrodollar influx decreases), the Saudi government seems committed to agriculture as a high priority.
The government has outlined an ''intensive water development program to overcome food and cash crop deficits (and to advance) water development,'' Agriculture Minister Abdel-Rahman al-Shaikh says. The goal is ''expansion of agriculture lands under irrigation and introduction of intensive methods of production.'' Since 1973, farmland has doubled to more than 525,000 hectares (1. 3 million acres).
Government and independent economists note that in the future, subsidies for wheat may have to be reduced from five times world market value to somewhere nearer twofold. But farm subsidies such as this one act as efficient wealth redistributors in the economy, cutting in rural Saudis on a share of the benefits that the flood in oil revenues has visited upon the more urban areas. Around 40 or 45 percent of the population lives in the countryside, and subsidizing farmers has seemed to the government a better alternative than watching them emigrate to the cities to share in the new opportunities there.
Still, Saudi agriculture accounts for only 23 percent of food consumed in the kingdom. The rest is imported. But Mr. Cardwell notes that the government is intent on ''agriculture substitution'' of imported items for those home-grown. Prosperity, however, has brought about more sophisticated tastes among Saudis and in the sizable expatriate community here. Thus, while the Saudi farm base may be growing, it is unlikely ever to replace importation as the prime source of consumables.
Incentives for Saudi farmers are great. The Agriculture Bank makes available interest-free loans, with 10-year payback periods (except in the case of annual items such as seed and fertilizer). The government pays half the cost of most farming equipment and fertilizers, and guarantees farm-product prices.
In the 1982-83 fiscal year the bank granted 37,000 new loans, with a total value of $1 billion. Only 100 of these were for big farm projects, the rest going to smaller farmers. An agriculture specialist here notes that because Saudis have traditionally been either nomads or oasis-estate dwellers, farming is not seen as especially prestigious. If the terms were not so generous, not many Saudis would go into farming.
Though terms are easy, the agriculture bank has been guarding against financing duplicative projects.
Mr. Cardwell says there has been rapid growth of late in the number of greenhouse operations. Using either a high-pressure drip irrigation system (in soil) or hydroponics (without soil), these greenhouses are cultivating cucumbers , tomatoes, lettuce, strawberries, bell peppers, and cantaloupes.
''The Saudi farmers are really probing around, looking for what will adapt,'' Mr. Cardwell says. ''Greenhouses offer tremendous yields. There's bountiful sunlight, and greenhouses take only a small amount of water. It's difficult to import vegetables and fruit that need to be fresh, so greenhouses have a lot of future potential.''
In a closed environment, Mr. Cardwell says, a hydroponic greenhouse could make do with only 1,000 gallons of water a day. Using either underground water or employing cheap natural gas to desalt sea water, this type of agricultural expansion can be carried out with relative ease.
Growth in the Saudi dairy industry is slowing, Mr. Cardwell says, but the present dairies are organizing more productive operations. And poultry farming in the kingdom is so well established that it has spawned industries here in parent-stock fowl, feed mills, processing, and local sales. A laying house in Taif that three years ago had only 400 hens now boasts 40,000.
Mr. Cardwell notes: ''There is a wide band of interest here in different aspects of agriculture. People and water are the more limiting resources.'' But the Saudi pattern seems to be to use abundant money and energy to make up for the lack of water and to finance advanced, highly automated agriculture processes that can alleviate the labor shortage.