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Locally grown strawberries

Al Mazrouah Yard/Facebook

Locally grown strawberries

Homegrown strawberries will be on offer at one of Qatar’s largest farmer’s markets over the next few days after local farms produced a high yield using new growing techniques.

The “strawberry festival” is on today and tomorrow at the Mazrouah Yard in northern Qatar.

QNA reports Assistant Undersecretary of Agricultural Affairs, Livestock and Fisheries at the Ministry of Municipality and Environment (MME) Sheikh Dr. Faleh bin Nasser Al -Thani as saying:

“Strawberry stocks at the festival for sale are fresh and of high quality and directly from local farms.”

He added that the strawberries were grown without soil, in a way that conserves water (hydroponic farming), and that the ministry is considering extending the cultivation of strawberries all year round.

Locally grown strawberries

Al Mazrouah Yard/Facebook

Locally grown strawberries

Qatar’s farms are also working to grow different varieties of fruits and vegetables using this less water-consuming technique, he said.

The strawberry festival will be held only Al Mazrouha Yard – located opposed the veterinary center in Umm Salal, east of Lusail – this weekend, with other events coming soon, another official said.

Speaking to Doha News, one of the participating growers Global Farms said packages of strawberries are being sold for about QR5 per 250g.

The market is open daily between 7am and 5pm on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Vendors only accept cash, but there is an on-site ATM. Here’s a map.

Thoughts?

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Ali Bandaying

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Though Qatar remains heavily reliant on imports to feed its growing population, the country has significantly increased the yield of locally grown produce and livestock in the past six years, according to new government figures.

Local farmers are producing more dates, cucumbers and green peppers in part due to an expansion in cultivated land since 2009.

But the largest increase by far has been in fodder for livestock, which has coincided with a dramatic jump in red meat and dairy product production, according to the latest agricultural report from the Ministry of Development Planning and Statistics (MDPS).

While Qatar’s dependence on imports is unlikely to change in the short term, government officials are still hoping that more of the nation’s food can come from inside the country.

In the report, MDPS officials stressed the strategic nature of farming here:

“The agricultural sector in Qatar is still at its first stages of development. This is due to scarcity of irrigation water, soil deficiency and adverse climatic conditions … The government is trying hard to develop this sector by offering technical assistance and materials subsidies to agricultural producers.”

What’s grown in Qatar?

In 2013, Qatar produced 741,566 tons of cereals, fruits, vegetables, meat, eggs, fish and dairy products, or the equivalent weight of more than half a million cows.

More than two-thirds of that was green fodder, which is primarily used to feed livestock. Production has increased by 73 percent between 2009 and 2013, from 331,101 tons to 574,207 tons.

The second-largest yield was milk and dairy products, the production of which increased by 65 percent from 35,609 tons in 2010 to 58,743 in 2013.

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Omar Chatriwala / Doha News

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Meanwhile, date palm production was Qatar’s third-most common crop, with local farmers harvesting 31,182 tons in 2013, up 50 percent from 20,815 tons in 2009.

While food production and land under cultivation has increased in recent years, the amount of vegetables grown declined to 43,447 tons in 2013, down 3 percent from 44,746 tons in 2009.

The other food category to show a significant decline was fish. Qatar’s fish stocks have dwindled in recent years, leading to various fish farms and aquaculture research projects being proposed.

Some 12,005 tons of fish were harvested in 2013. While that’s up by slightly more than 700 tons over the previous year, it’s still down 15 percent over the 14,066 tons caught in 2009.

Self-sufficiency

Qatar is working to boost its food security through a combination of increasing domestic production as well as making investments and buying up farmland abroad.

Some critics say that increasing food production in Qatar comes at a steep financial and environmental cost, as the need to desalinate water can make growing crops and raising livestock an expensive proposition.

Nevertheless, the recent QDPS report suggested that efforts to produce more food in Qatar is working and that local farmers are feeding a growing share of the country’s ever-increasing population.

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Omar Chatriwala / Doha News

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

For example, it stated that the country grew nearly 24 percent of the fruits and vegetables consumed in Qatar in 2013, up from 15 percent in 2009.

Similarly, the country was 8.5 percent “self-sufficient” in meats in 2013, up from 6 percent in 2009.

On the other hand, Qatar’s reliance on imported fish, eggs and vegetables has increased during the same time period.

Earlier this year, financial advisory firm Alpen Capital reported that Qatar’s growing wealth meant shoppers were increasingly turning to pricier items in grocery stores such as meat, fruit and organic products.

It forecast that the amount of food consumed in Qatar would increase the fastest in the GCC.

Thoughts?

All photos by Chantelle D’mello

While most Qatar residents’ eyes are drawn to Doha’s skyline, now bursting with cranes and skyscrapers, Ambhara Pavithran prefers to set her sights on the ground.

Along with two other residents – Jisha Krishnan and Meena Philip – the 52-year-old is working to cultivate Qatar’s first rice paddy, no small feat given the country’s merciless weather and arid land.

The trio are co-founders of the local chapter of Adukkalathottam (kitchen garden), a Facebook group that encourages organic farming among Keralites all over the world.

With a current membership of some 600 local residents and over 30,000 worldwide, the page, written almost exclusively in the Malayalam language, is a sounding board for one of the most ambitious agricultural endeavors in Qatar.

The Gulf state imports more than 90 percent of its food, and has working in recent years to boost its food security.

Beginnings

The idea of growing rice in Qatar was raised earlier this year, when the group held their first meeting in April to gauge local interest in organic farming.

At the time, some 250 members gathered at the Al Dosari Zoo and Game Reserve over 25km from Doha to discuss ways to begin farming on a larger scale.

Most members had prior experience in growing crops, with housewives cultivating their own tomatoes, potatoes and beetroots in their kitchens, terraces, and verandas.

Speaking to Doha News, Pavithran explained:

“We didn’t think so many people would show up. At the time of the meeting, we invited Mr. Mohammed Al Dosari, who owns the place, to attend. He expressed interest in organic farming after seeing what the group was about. He suggested giving us a portion of his plot to try to grow vegetables, grains, and pulses locally, and we went ahead from there.”

Following the initial meeting, the trio and their families began looking into ways to make the 2833 sq. m plot of land they had been provided fit for agriculture.

Chantelle D'mello

“This is our passion,” said Pavithran. “In Kerala, we all grew up around farming, so we’re trying to bring that back here, and recreate it in our new home.”

The first step involved preparing the soil to sustain plant life. Slightly acidic, the soil was neutral with a mixture of manure and water, bringing it to an optimal pH level.

The women then bought 10 bags of special German soil from nurseries around the Wholesale Market to replace the dry sand. Once the soil was put in place, they hired workers to plough the land.

A month after the scorching summer came to a close, the women held another general meeting on Sept. 19 to discuss what kinds of plants to sow in the newly ploughed field.

The answer came back unanimous – rice.

Challenges

The next day, the Keralite Minister of Agriculture – who was already in town for another event – inaugurated the plot of land and planted the first rice seeds. The group sourced three varieties of rare “heritage seeds” of paddy from a collector in Kerala for use in the project.

Currently, around 20 percent of the prepared farmland is dedicated to paddy. The women have also planted string beans; ash, bitter, and bottle gourd; lettuce; tapioca; radish; beetroot; pumpkin; banana; and green pepper plants, most of which have already begun flowering.

Chantelle D'mello

Despite the group’s success, the two-month long project has not been without its challenges.

The paddy is first grown in flat troughs indoors until the seeds germinate. Then, it is transplanted to the paddy fields where they are required to be submerged in water at all times. The first time that the paddy was transplanted, the seeds didn’t grow past the stage; the second time, the birds ate up the nascent crops.

However, the group does get free water – to the tune of 400 gallons a day – and manure for their plants, courtesy of Al Dosari.

Additional challenges include the ever changing weather – too much wind or too much heats poses a threat to the plants.

Come summer, the project will have to be shut down, unless the trio manages to raise the QR100,000 required for a polyhouse, a temperature-controlled polyethylene dome that protects crops from extreme heat and humidity.

The project is also increasingly time-intensive. Pavithran, a housewife, spends five hours during the weekdays, from 7am to noon, and 12 hours on weekends, from 7am to 7pm, at the field. The other women, also homemakers, spend equal amounts of time tending to the plants.

During the weekends however, numerous members from the Facebook group drive out to the game reserve to lend a helping hand.