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.

Nicholas Seeley
A foreign worker walks between rows of chiles in field at Khaireddin Shukri’s farm in the Jordan Valley. Better crop management has boosted the farm’s yield.
Jordan Valley

When Jordan's government-supplied water got too dirty to use, farmer Khaireddin Shukri decided to make his own.

In 2002, Mr. Shukri spent $250,000 to build a small desalination and purification plant for Modern Valley Farms, which he managed in the Jordan Valley. While it was a significant investment, it allowed him to reuse the valley's abundant brackish water and sell his produce in foreign markets with stricter health requirements.

Today, the farm provides fresh salads for all McDonald's outlets in Jordan, and Shukri has moved on to another venture that exports premium produce to Europe. His embrace of a high-tech, value-added business model offers an example for how sustainable water practices can enable farms to prosper in one of the world's driest countries.

"The most limiting factor in desert farming is water," says Shukri. "If we don't know how to manage the water we won't survive."

A dangerous combination

Jordan is already consuming more than its renewable water resources, and as its population and economy grow, the need to economize and find new sources of water is becoming more urgent. The latest International Panel on Climate Change predicted that the Middle East region is likely to face both a decrease in precipitation and an increase in temperatures – a dangerous combination for Jordan, and countries like it, which are already water-poor and at significant risk of desertification.

With many blaming agriculture as a chief culprit in the nation's water shortages, Shukri's approach offers a ray of hope – and a rebuttal to those who say Jordan should stop exporting produce to preserve its limited resources.

Irrigated agriculture accounts for 64 percent of annual water use in Jordan. That's down from 75 percent in 1996. But farms produce only 3.1 percent of Jordan's gross domestic product and are responsible for only 2.7 percent of local employment.

Farmers dispute these government statistics, but even they admit farms waste water made cheap by government subsidies and illegally drilled wells. There's long been talk of raising water prices in line with the resource's actual value, but many farmers, already working on thin margins, have been resistant to the idea.

Some farmers grow thirsty crops such as bananas that sell for a pittance. Even staples, like tomatoes and cucumbers, often go to market at prices lower than the cost of the water it takes to grow them.

"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.

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.

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