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The View from Here: Growing alfalfa in the desert

Mike Gangwer Published on 09 December 2009

In the deserts of western Iraq, a new development project rises out of the sand. Today, our mission is evaluating the site and writing these comments in the form of a progress report.

A private landowner has purchased several hundred hectares of land from the government of Iraq. The land base sits alongside a poorly maintained asphalt road and nothing else. There are no services. In fact, there is not a single building for miles, although some Bedouin sojourners have encampments nearby. They care for camels and sheep, and generally place their tent compounds within a few hours of surface water.

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The landowner’s vision is simple: Grow alfalfa under center pivots and market the alfalfa hay as large bales to dairy farms in Jordan, a few hundred kilometers further west. Helping him is a non-government agency, or NGO, with the initial investment. Our drive required nearly two hours.

We located the farm site with a grid based on the NGO information. As we drove to the site, we left the somewhat fertile Mesopotamia Plain for the barren desert, the sands nearly white and the wind constantly blowing out of the west. We had a full platoon of U.S. soldiers with us. Several of them told me they never imagined they would be transporting a USDA scientist to evaluate an alfalfa farm.

But rather than complain, they do what professional soldiers do – their job. We arrived mid-morning and the temperature was already near 95 degrees. We dismounted at the first center pivot. Here, the pivot of seven towers was constructed. The well had been dug. A diesel generator was supplying electricity for the water pump. I did not get a solid answer to what is the well depth.

The pump hose was sitting on the side of a concrete basin. The basin was approximately 20 meters square and about two meters deep. It was nearly full of water this morning. The center pivot electric panel was not quite done. The service panel had wires not yet connected to the breaker bus. The main feed from another generator was already finished, but the generator had not yet turned a revolution.

There was a service tank, a white plastic tank, sitting at the pivot. My guess is this tank would contain the soluble nutrients as fertilizer. However, the site manager could not answer this question and the landowner was absent.

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A roof over all of this hardware was under construction. A chain link fence was already built around the generators. The pivots themselves look like any we have in the U.S. The plastic drop hoses already have the sprinkler package installed. The towers sit in alignment and the piping slightly bent upwards so the weight of water will not collapse the structure.

The soils, however, are an entirely different matter. In these desert soils there is very little soil organic matter. The acidity is actually in the alkaline range; the pH for these soils is 8.0. I did not have a soil fertility sheet for these soils, but typically they have adequate base cations with low phosphate. The soils lack any kind of structure; they are unconsolidated and will have low water-holding capacity.

The farmland in Iraq is generally owned by the government and in turn, leased to farmers for decade-long rights. The government supplies most of the inputs, buys the crop harvest yield, and controls the market price. There is very little agricultural private enterprise. This project is certainly out of the norm, and without the financial support of the NGO, would not be here.

The landowner, an Iraqi sheik, could only purchase land that had not been recently farmed. In fact, there are reports of farmland expansion, and these entrepreneurial farmers, those with the money to invest (with help in this case) and possible money to lose, are investing in the modernization of Iraqi agriculture. As I have found in many other countries, land ownership generally can be tied to modern use of the land if private ownership is encouraged.

Many of us here in Iraq feel strongly that if land could actually be purchased and private enterprise can develop the modern agriculture practices commonly found in the Arab Gulf Region, Iraq would move closer to food sustainability. As it is now, well over half of all food and feed are imported into this country. For this soon-to-be alfalfa farm, the initial crop will be planted early November with a barley nurse crop. The barley grain will be sold for livestock feed, and then next spring the first harvest will occur. The plans include purchase of windrowers and balers.

Interestingly no mention was made of a bale buggy or bale loader. Certainly the market exists for the alfalfa hay. There are large modern dairies in Jordan and the truck drive there is about half a day. I did not get an answer to the question about importing requirements into Jordan. I hope someone has all that figured out. Private ownership in Iraq has enormous incentives. If the government will allow private ownership and an investor can invest, and there is a market (dairy cows everywhere need alfalfa), then this project just might work.

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I might be back here for a visit before my tour is complete on February 1. If I do, the desert sand may be a beautiful green oasis in the middle of an Iraqi desert. Trucks with large bales will head west bringing alfalfa to Holstein dairy cows in Jordan. And as innovators know, others are watching.

If this alfalfa farm is successful, others will be interested, especially if the demand exists. I wrote my report and filed it with our USDA people and the NGO. Yes, I asked some technical questions or at least suggested that they be asked. But the essence of my report was “full steam ahead and we ought to not get in the road.” This is exactly what Iraq needs…landowners just like this. PD

Mike Gangwer
Foreign Ag Service Soil and Water Ministerial Adviser in Iraq

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