And so instead of taxing natural resources in Oman by going the traditional way, experts advise farmers to use Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA). The option is being seen by many as not just environment-friendly but also a profitable proposition.
CEA is a technology-based approach towards food production. The aim of CEA is to provide protection and maintain optimal growing conditions throughout the development of the crop.
Production takes place within an enclosed growing structure such as a greenhouse or a building. Plants are often grown using hydroponic methods in order to supply proper amounts of water and nutrients to the root zone. CEA optimises the use of resources such as water, energy, space, capital and labour. In Oman, it was found that greenhouse cultivation increased land productivity by almost 12 times and water productivity by almost double.
Dr Abdulrahim al Ismaili, from the department of Soils, Water and Agricultural Engineering, College of Agricultural and Marine Science at Sultan Qaboos University (SQU), said that farmers too have welcomed the technology.
“The number of greenhouses increased from 782 to 2,491 from 2001 to 2008, registering a three-fold increase. In 2010, greenhouses increased to 4,740 indicating an annual greenhouse growth rate of approximately 40 per cent,” Dr Ismaili added.
By the end of 2014, the total number of greenhouses in Oman was 5,475 (North Batinah governorate - 515 and South Batinah – 695).
The Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MoAF) too is keen on spreading this technology through subsidy programmes and awareness campaigns.
“The subsidy programmes were very successful that for every RO1,000 invested as a subsidy agricultural net returns increased by RO1,690. The success of awareness campaigns by MoAF is evident in the number of farmers who built greenhouses. Many of them have even built greenhouses at their own expenses.”
Citing a study conducted by MoAF and the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) it was found that on an average, a single greenhouse that cultivated cucumbers garnered a profit of RO286 and tomatoes RO142 per season.
Dr Ismaili, however, pointed out that both MoAF and ICARDA have reported a wide range of difficulties faced by farmers using CEA. Some of these include, marketing the agricultural produce and external competition.
Water consumption by the evaporative coolers used in the greenhouses too is a concern.
“It was found that greenhouse water consumption in the evaporative coolers is very high, representing 67 per cent of the total water consumption used in greenhouses. To keep the greenhouse cool, farmers do not have to use freshwater; they can use saline or brackish groundwater as well.”
Despite the challenges, its advantages are too good to be ignored, Dr Ismaili said, adding CEA is an answer to soil salinity and seawater intrusion affecting the Batinah governorates - which houses sultanate’s major agricultural areas.
Greenhouse farming will help farmers reduce use of water in irrigation by approximately 80 per cent as compared to open-field agriculture, he said.
A farm owner from Saham said seawater intrusion had destroyed his farms. “My farms were destroyed by seawater intrusion and soil salinity. And so in 2011, I started cultivating different kinds of vegetables especially cucumbers and tomatoes in a greenhouse which has helped me sustain.”