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Desert Farming Experiment Yields Good Initial Results 178

Taco Cowboy writes "For the past year or so, a tiny scale farming experiment in has been carried out in the desert field of Qatar, using only sunlight and seawater. From the article: 'A pilot plant built by the Sahara Forest Project (SFP) produced 75 kilograms of vegetables per square meter in three crops annually (or 25 kilograms per square meter, per crop)' If the yield level can be maintained, a farm of the size of 60 hectares would be enough to supply the nation of Qatar with all the cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, and egglants that it needs. 'The project will proceed to the next stage with an expansion to 20 hectares, to test its viability into commercial operation.'"
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Desert Farming Experiment Yields Good Initial Results

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  • by ArcadeMan (2766669) on Tuesday November 12, 2013 @03:14AM (#45398499)
    Why were those vegetables chosen instead of others? Why not radishes, etc?
    • What is wrong with those choices? Frankly, they sound good to me...
      • by Joce640k (829181)

        Maybe the locals don't normally eat radishes and wouldn't know what to do with them.

        • by Greyfox (87712) on Tuesday November 12, 2013 @09:27AM (#45400269) Homepage Journal
          No one eats radishes or knows what to do with them.

          I don't know about cucumbers, but given some tomatoes and eggplant and you're well on your way to a nice stew. Just add some goat, onion, garlic, cumin, salt and pepper and you'll feed the family for a week!

          • by rhsanborn (773855)
            Cucumbers and eggplant are a significant source of pretty much zero vitamins and minerals. I wonder if they are particularly robust in the scorched soil because they require relatively few nutrients ... ?
          • Radishes - both the bulbs and the greens - are just fine (though spicy) in salads.

            Also: My chickens LOVE them, though they like grain, chard, bugs, and blueberries progressively better. (I'm not sure where mice and shrews fit into the hierarchy but I'm sure they'd be near the more-desirable end.)

            A single large radish, tossed the flock, is the starting move in a game of chicken soccer. The radish quickly takes on the appearance of a soccer ball as they take enough bites to make it dotted red-and-white all

      • by xelah (176252)
        They're not exactly high calorie. Perfectly reasonable choices in terms of growing nice food ('value creation' as they put it), though I can't help wondering if they'll get the mother of all red spider mite infestations. Arab countries have bought huge amounts of African farmland in attempt to gain some food security, and if you assume it's for that purpose instead then you might have expected different choices. Still not radishes, though.
        • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday November 12, 2013 @08:38AM (#45399811)

          When you are setting up a new industry you go with high profit, then someday when the business model is proven out and streamlined you can do something that is much lower profit.

          As it is if they want high calorie they could buy a load of grain from the US for 1/100 the price they could grow in the desert. Vegtables on the other hand don't ship as easily as grain, so growing them locally would make more sense as customers pay a premium for the higher quality.

          • by taiwanjohn (103839) on Tuesday November 12, 2013 @12:26PM (#45402473)

            Although I fully support and applaud this effort, this is not the only way to get the job done. Permaculture design can achieve similar results with much smaller inputs, as described in this video. [youtube.com]

            The most important concept of permaculture is water management. If you only get 8" of rain per year and it all comes within a 3-week window, you'd better have your land "sculpted" to optimize retention of water on the surface for as long as possible. Such improvements last for generations, and continually add fertility and biodiversity to the land.

            If we seriously applied these principles worldwide, we could make the entire globe flood-proof and drought-proof in less than a decade. Seriously.

            For example, check the before & after photos in Green Gold [youtube.com] or in this TED Talk [youtube.com] by Allan Savory. These amazing transformations happen in just a few years. Imagine what would be possible over the long term.

      • by mcgrew (92797) *

        I don't believe I've ever tasted egglant before...

    • by Frobnicator (565869) on Tuesday November 12, 2013 @03:32AM (#45398567) Journal

      Why were those vegetables chosen instead of others? Why not radishes, etc?

      Probably because all of those vegetables can be grown in a similar climate as each other, all of them have very similar growing techniques where the plant can be placed in a wire cage or mesh that supports vertical growth.

      Each of those plants have broad leaves, can be cultivated to thrive in lower water, and can be cultivated to require a relatively small footprint.

      When you are going to grow a bunch of water-loving plants in the desert, you are going to want tall self-shading structures. If you look at their greenhouses in the article you can see that vertical space is available but horizontal space is a premium.

      I happen to live in a desert and have grown three of those four plants for decades. They grow well together.

    • by upuv (1201447) on Tuesday November 12, 2013 @03:33AM (#45398569) Journal

      It has to be commercially viable. So choose stuff people want.

      This is about growing food people will consume. If in the same shoes I would choose the same crops. Not because they are the most efficient, not because they are the best for you. But because it's the income that will allow the plant to continue to grow food. Local food.

      And it's that last two words that matter most. Local food. As in the amount of oil used to transport the food from a far off land is drastically reduced.

      Even if the crops are not the best source of nutrition they are still better for you in the long run. Simply because the cost in carbon and energy is so low.

      And to top it off this is only the start. In the future when the tech becomes cheaper and easier to implement the market is easier for people like your self to grow a radish or 6.

      • by j-beda (85386)

        Local food.

        And it's that last two words that matter most. Local food. As in the amount of oil used to transport the food from a far off land is drastically reduced.

        Even if the crops are not the best source of nutrition they are still better for you in the long run. Simply because the cost in carbon and energy is so low.

        And to top it off this is only the start. In the future when the tech becomes cheaper and easier to implement the market is easier for people like your self to grow a radish or 6.

        But something like 86% or more of the energy/carbon budget for food production is at the point of production. Only 5% in some studies is used for transportation. Hey, every bit helps, but transportation costs (energy and dollars) are not particularly high for most foods.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Food_miles#Energy_used_in_production_as_well_as_transport [wikipedia.org]

        With that said, these green houses are well situated to minimize heating costs (as compared to hothouses in the UK for example) and I would think that a gr

        • by Immerman (2627577)

          >With that said, these green houses are well situated to minimize heating costs

          I suspect heating costs is not high on their priority list - they're in a relatively low latitude (25*) coastal desert, heat is unlikely to be in short supply, the greenhouse is almost certainly to retain moisture. In fact they're not even using solar power for desalination, except indirectly - from TFA:

          At one end, salt water is trickled over a gridlike curtain so that the prevailing wind blows the resulting cool, moist air over the plants inside. This cooling effect allowed the Qatar facility to grow three crops per year, even in the scorching summer. At the other end of the greenhouse is a network of pipes with cold seawater running through them. Some of the moisture in the air condenses on the pipes and is collected, providing a source of fresh water.

        • And 40-50% of ALL food goes rotten or is thrown away (from supermarkets or consumers fridges). Locally grown veggies can adapt to local demand, time to market reduces wastage. WIN WIN
      • On the what people want, that's fair, but I think what people end up wanting in terms of food is driven more by what people have to sell than you're giving credit. Advertising and creating demand. Americans didn't have an unusual craving for corn and high fructose corn syrup until someone realized that corn subsidies meant corn was really cheap to make.

        If you make foods that can be grown cheaply in the desert, I'm sure someone will come along and find out how to make people want to eat it. And you can
    • by PolygamousRanchKid (1290638) on Tuesday November 12, 2013 @06:54AM (#45399279)

      . . . because you can make a popular Middle East meal with them: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C4%B0mam_bay%C4%B1ld%C4%B1 [wikipedia.org]

    • by arcite (661011)
      To make Baba Ganoush, fattouch, tabbouleh ect... oh god I'm hungry now.
  • Economics (Score:5, Interesting)

    by captainpanic (1173915) on Tuesday November 12, 2013 @03:29AM (#45398547)

    I am very curious about the economics of this type of farming. (Note, I am not necessarily a skeptic). The cost of the water is obviously a driver to make sure the maximum amount of water is recycled. I wonder if they use hydroponics?

    Greenhouses are used at large scale elsewhere with a lot of success. The Netherlands has a large area of greenhouses to produce tomatoes and peppers (and a lot more). There, the water is not a bottleneck, but sunlight is. So, lamps are used. I guess that is just as costly, showing that the economics of a greenhouse are not necessarily a problem.

    • Re:Economics (Score:5, Interesting)

      by thegarbz (1787294) on Tuesday November 12, 2013 @03:57AM (#45398685)

      The arab countries never really worried about energy efficiency in the past. The problem there is every drop of drinking water is effectively sourced from desalination. The town water in Qatar tastes absolutely crap and even the hotels typically provide 2L bottled water bottles in the rooms (can't wait to hear the complains from the upcoming world cup).

      This creates a very interesting problem for farming in the desert which looks absolutely fascinating on Google Maps [goo.gl]

      Check out the green irrigation circles dotted all over the place.

      Compared to that this is almost more of a traditional farming method.

    • by clickety6 (141178)

      The Netherlands has a large area of greenhouses to produce tomatoes and peppers (and a lot more).

      The trouble with greenhouse-grown produce from the Netherlands is that the taste of the vegetables are a pale imitation of what they should taste like.For instance, Dutch tomatoes are watery and bland compared to garden grown tomatoes. Maybe it's because they are picked too green so locally growing could help?

    • Yes, this is a classic investor trap, which has been covered before on Slashdot [slashdot.org]. I seem to recall another story about seawaterfarms dot com on slashdot, but I can't find it. Anyway, you can see that page in the Wayback Machine and see how it didn't exactly go anywhere.

      The big rusting tank they talked about that supposedly gave valuable micronutrients to the plant, maybe says something about the seriousness of the project.

  • by upuv (1201447) on Tuesday November 12, 2013 @03:42AM (#45398613) Journal

    It's really good to see some one follow through on this. This is excellent.

    I've been toying and drawing up plans for very low maintenance solar desal for years. All the same basic components as this. But they have taken a few steps further than I was thinking. I had not worked in humid air as a means of watering plants. It really solves a lot of issues with condensing the water.

    Problems like biomass build ups and the effort to clean it. Now that effort is productive as it is harvesting food not just cleaning sludge off the walls.

    I really like it.

    I had wind to pump salt and fresh water up hill. So that I would have a reserve of each at all times. That way wind could be used to build kinetic energy and store it as raise water mass. Salt water of course to feed the evaporators and to flush waste back out to sea. Fresh for obvious uses.

    Something I have struggled with is a solar tracker that would allow a mirror to stayed focused on a water pipe to heat it to near steam to accelerate the evaporation. Something that does not actually require elctro-mechanical input.

    • by c0lo (1497653) on Tuesday November 12, 2013 @04:43AM (#45398885)

      Something I have struggled with is a solar tracker that would allow a mirror to stayed focused on a water pipe to heat it to near steam to accelerate the evaporation. Something that does not actually require elctro-mechanical input.

      Have you considered a solar trough [wikipedia.org]?
      You can get the sun's elevation [sunearthtools.com] and adjust the angle of your trough once every 3-4 days; after all, your pipe is not going to be a hit-or-miss-thread so doesn't need to stay exactly in the parabola focus.

      • by upuv (1201447) on Tuesday November 12, 2013 @06:28AM (#45399185) Journal

        I have considered the trough. But there is so much lost solar radiation this way if you don't have some tracking in place.

        Basically I get more solar heat transfer if I just have a glass cover over a shallow pond that is painted black. I just don't get the temperature high enough to create a more efficient evaporation. It's just ends up being slower at a lower temp. Which then results in more biomass growth. I'd like to have close to boiling to hinder algae and such in the solar collector system.

        So I'm stuck with a lot of labour with either method. However the construction costs are much lower with the black pond method.

        I have been tossing around some ideas on how to automatically adjust the angle using struts that expand and contract with heat. Just need to find the right balance of expansion and contraction I hope to cause the system to angle itself as the sun passes overhead. My current thinking is something like a shock absorber filled with gas. A gas shock could cause contraction or expansion of a joint when cooled. So somehow tying the heated sea water into the system to control it's own angle.

    • by Coppit (2441) on Tuesday November 12, 2013 @07:53AM (#45399505) Homepage

      I had some kids in a class I was teaching invent an umbrella that used a closed system of two connected canisters, one on each end. The liquid inside (I forget which) was chosen so that when heated it became *more* dense, causing the sun-ward side to be heavier, turning the umbrella toward the sun. It seems that sort of passive system is possible, if you wanted to go down the invention road. :)

    • I've never understood what happens to the salt (and a none-too-pure salt at that) from large-scale desalinization processes.

      Let me guess: it's either dumped back in the sea or left as a slurry and pumped underground as they do in the oil patch.
      • None too pure salt? Leaving seawater to evap for salt is one of the oldest and simplest methods for obtaining it.. and it's actually better for you (trace minerals).

      • by Khyber (864651)

        "Let me guess: it's either dumped back in the sea or left as a slurry and pumped underground as they do in the oil patch."

        You could always just do a little basic research and look up SEA-90.

  • by 93 Escort Wagon (326346) on Tuesday November 12, 2013 @03:48AM (#45398647)

    The article doesn't really talk about the plant culture at all - "sunlight and seawater" is what they're using to maintain a favorable climate for the plants in the greenhouses.

    It's still pretty cool tech, though.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday November 12, 2013 @04:08AM (#45398731)

    I work in agricultural research (cropping) and I'm a bit curious about those yields. Working on a single crop, that's 250 ton/hectare. For most crops in heavy clay soils the best you can hope to achieve is 8 - 12 (maybe 15 if you're *really* lucky). Now again, that's for crops, not vegetables, but I find it hard to believe that vegetables could yield over 20 times as much. Is this right? Is the weight mostly water? Are they able to grow year round with all the heat? I still find it hard to believe as even if you could get 5 harvests a year (and I'd be surprised if they got more than 3) that's still 50t/ha/harvest.

    • They got three crops, they have tons of sunlight, and using moist air to keep the plants hydrated is a great idea (especially since plants under intense sunlight tend to keep their stomata wide open), they are saying the yields are equivalent to those in europe.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      The vines of these crops are indeterminate, and will flower and produce as long as you take care of them. 12 or 18 months is the typical cycle though. They go though and harvest every day. You can't have indeterminate grains as harvest would be a nightmare. And yes all of thos crops are something like 85-90% water.

    • by argStyopa (232550)

      Agreed. As a farmer by descent (family's occupation, not mine) that number seems unreasonably high.

      Even if that yield is accurate, my next concern would be the sustainability - the amount of nitrogen you'd have to add to the soil to sustain that would be incredible but I guess runoff's not an issue if everything's being held in a closed system.

      Just seems very "something for nothing" to me.

      • by Whorhay (1319089)

        Isn't the nitrogen needed primarily for the formation of the leaves and vines? These plants would only really need a lot of nitrogen in the initial growth phases. Once they are fully grown they would need relatively little nitrogen to keep producing harvestable fruit.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Vegtables like tomatoes in greenhouses can be very productive. Here in the Netherlands, they get 42 kg/m2 per year, which is 420 metric tonne per hectare. This is pretty advanced stuff though, In Almeria, Spain, the other big Greenhouse concentration in Europe they get about 10-12 kg/m2, a lot less.



    • by jabuzz (182671)

      A little Googling shows that the Tylka F1 tomatoe variety does 155 to 180 tonnes per hectare (70 - 80 tons per acre). With a harvesting period of 4-6 months with maturity 75 days after planting. So only need two crops a year to get a 250 ton per hectare yield which makes it look perfectly feasible to me. If you really work in agricultural research you need to sack yourself!

      http://www.syngenta.com/country/ke/en/products/Vegetable%20Seeds/Pages/Tomatoes.aspx [syngenta.com]

  • Arable Soil (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward

    This tech seems to only addresses the issues of water and heat, not arable soil. It doesn't say either way explicitly, but the fact it was funded by fertilizer companies leads me to believe as much. So this could mitigate some of the impacts of climate change in costal drought-stricken regions, but won't address the nitrogen crisis.

    Does anyone know how arable deserts in the middle east or africa are if they were irrigated? Are they mostly untapped reserve of nutrients, or a bunch of sand?

    • Mosty a bunch of sand. The Sahara is a different story, though, so this would work well in Algeria, Libya and so on.
  • fertilizer? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by dutchwhizzman (817898) on Tuesday November 12, 2013 @04:20AM (#45398779)
    How will they fertilize this? Are they using desert ground, or are they just using the location and using fertile ground or hydroponics? I know that Australia's attempt to irrigate desert ground to grow crops turned whole regions so saline that even desert plants won't grow there anymore.
    • by ddt (14627)

      It's a common misconception that you need fertilization. If you plant the right crops together, they feed each other the nutrients and take care of nitrogen fixation. The catch is that with intermixed crops, it can become more difficult to harvest your crops with bulk thrashers, but robotics and image recognition can come to the rescue on this front.

      • by Inda (580031)
        That's bollocks.

        Plants need NPK plus about 14 other elements. Where's the PK coming from if you don't feed?
        • Same place the chem-ag fertilizers get it from - the soil. Who fertilizes the forests?

          The parent poster is referring to plants known to be nutrient accumulators. They cycle nutrients from the soil into their leaves, making them available to other plants as they die off.

    • Re:fertilizer? (Score:4, Informative)

      by upuv (1201447) on Tuesday November 12, 2013 @06:34AM (#45399203) Journal

      It was sponsored by a fertiliser company.

    • by upuv (1201447)

      The are using desal water from evaporation. Very low in Salts. If not zero. They are also in a green house not open field. If the soil gets contaminated with salt they can simply dump it into the sea. Which would not be a bad way of sinking some carbon come to think of it.

      In Australia water the desert just results in evaporation of the water. Which leaves behind salt on the land. It was not well thought out.

      Clearly different methods of bring green to the sand.

    • Re:fertilizer? (Score:5, Interesting)

      by biodata (1981610) on Tuesday November 12, 2013 @07:08AM (#45399335)
      There isn't a worry here about salination of the soil because the salts end up in the evaporation columns. I saw a lo-tech version of this described a couple of years ago at the UK Plant Sci conference, and this project sounds like an outgrowth from that - they also described the effect on the land outside the greenhouse, with spontaneous growth of native desert flora due to the increased external humidity. The experimenters used a greenhouse with a cardboard wall on the upwind side - the sea water soaks up the wall and is evaporated into the greenhouse by the wind, leaving the salts in the cardboard. After a few years the cardboard wall is a very rigid mineral-rich material that you can use for building structures like sheds.
  • by Xtense (1075847) <xtense@@@o2...pl> on Tuesday November 12, 2013 @04:36AM (#45398843) Homepage

    "To the people whose labors go beyond ideas into the realm of 'real materials'- to the dry-land ecologists, wherever they may be, in whatever time they work, this effort at prediction is dedicated in humility and admiration."
            âFrank Herbert

    Not accounting for the usability of this exact piece of science in a practical setting, we will develop further. I salute you guys, you're the thankless people who are doing actual work making this world a better place. Thank you.

    • by evilviper (135110)

      you're the thankless people who are doing actual work making this world a better place. Thank you.

      And now they've disappeared in a puff of logic.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday November 12, 2013 @05:28AM (#45399021)

    What they really need is a droid who speaks the binary language of moisture vaporators.

  • This is a great initative that could be be beneficial and hunger suppressing in multiple sandy countries in northern africa and the middle east. As long as the country borders on the sea. Sadly this leaves out Mali, Niger and a few more landlocked piss-poor countries in the regio.

    Ideally this would be combined with careful irrigation and planting strategies to stop the desertification (if that is a word). Such a more classic initiative worked well in one of these countries (I forgot which one), but a civ
  • by Lucky_Pierre (175635) on Tuesday November 12, 2013 @06:48AM (#45399255)

    They have the most experience in greenhouses and desert agriculture. Even the Navajo Nation is studying Israeli methods.

    • by mi (197448)
      Hell will undergo a climate change before an Arab nation will openly admit, Israel is doing something — anything — worth studying and copying.
    • Er... I don't see Qatar asking Israel for any help... nor Israel granting it
    • by brianerst (549609)

      I forget all the details at this point, but I remember that the Israelis had a huge number of similar greenhouses in Gaza - thousands of them - that were responsible for something like 15% of total Israeli agricultural output. Fresh vegetables grow well in greenhouses. (Taste may be a different matter...)

  • Mars, here we come! God help you.
  • With their water sources drying up, where are the two largest pools of water planet earth located? Water purifiers on a grand scale, but better than dust storms I'd wager.
  • by whitroth (9367) <[su.tnec-5] [ta] [htortihw]> on Tuesday November 12, 2013 @01:11PM (#45403181) Homepage

    I actually read the first paragraph or two of the original article (I know, that's *so* unslashdot), and that's rather clever: seawater over a grid to evaporate and cool, increasing the humidity.. and cooler seawater to cause some of it to condense... providing desalinated seawater.


  • there is a much more massive desert farming operation going on in California, tens of billions of USD in produce made annually.

"There are things that are so serious that you can only joke about them" - Heisenberg