Did you know that the U.S. is a center of desert farming?
Just consider California’s Imperial Valley.
The Imperial Valley receives only three inches of rainfall a year, and yet it produces about 90 percent of the U.S.’s winter vegetables.
It can even grow some of the most water-intensive crops, like alfalfa, almonds, and rice.
How is this the case?
We’ll find out in this blog, and also cover everything you need to know if you plan to farm in the desert.
Let’s get started!
1. What are deserts?
Deserts are characterized by little to no rainfall, poor or sandy soil, extreme temperatures, scorching winds, little water catchment potential, and almost complete reliance on (often) non-renewable groundwater.
However, as deserts cover about 1/3 of global land surface, they’re where many people on Earth live.
Thus, they must also serve as a source of livelihood.
This is where desert farming comes in.
Desert farming is all about learning to combine nature-based solutions and traditional farming methods with inexpensive, appropriate technologies.
Using these, you can transform desert agriculture systematically and sustainably.
2. What is desert farming?
Desert farming is the practice of developing agriculture in deserts.
That said, desert farming has been practiced by humans for thousands of years dating back to the Negev Desert in 5000 BC.
Just because you live in an arid region doesn’t mean you have to give up hope of farming.
3. What is the history of farming in the desert?
Desert farming has long been practiced.
For example, early civilizations such as ancient Assyria, Israel/Judah, Egypt, and the Indus River Valley Civilization were all founded in irrigated land surrounded by desert.
Rearing crops was essential to surviving, so learning how to farm the desert became vital.
4. Where is contemporary desert farming performed?
The regions of the Middle East and North Africa are prime examples of growing nations that exist in the desert.
This means that desert farming is necessary to enhance food security.
However, this is (once again) challenging due to water scarcity.
Here are a few examples of how countries are making it work.
Israel is one of the top modern countries that has pioneered techniques for desert farming.
Simcha Blass was a Polish-Israeli engineer who invented drip irrigation, which has led to an expansion of desert farming in arid conditions.
In fact, now most places (not just deserts) will use drip irrigation as the go-to option.
Drip irrigation is primarily used because studies have consistently shown that it yields about an 80 percent reduction in water use.
Another way that Israeli has helped desert farming progress is through wastewater reuse and desalination.
Technology that allows for the recycling of wastewater can open up a whole new world of possibilities.
Today, Israel reuses close to 90% of its wastewater for agricultural irrigation.
On top of this, desalination, brackish, or effluent water accounts for 55 percent of Israel’s drinking water supply.
In fact, this tiny country holds the largest seawater desalination plant in the world.
It’s called the Sorek Desalination Plant, and it’s located in Tel Aviv.
These improvements in water use have had a real impact on Israel’s agricultural impact.
Their total farmland has expanded from 165,000 hectares to 420,000 hectares, and as a result, they produce 70 percent of their own food.
As mentioned above, the Imperial Valley in California is one of the best examples of desert farming.
This valley located in the Sonoran Desert has been farmed for 90 years in southern California.
The water it uses is supplied from the Colorado River, and it’s estimated that a significant portion of the U.S.’s winter vegetables come from the Imperial Valley.
This area is also responsible for most of the lamb and sheep production in the country.
Australia is both a vast and arid nation, but agriculture is still a staple of its economy.
They primarily produce cattle, wheat, milk, wool, barley, poultry, lamb, sugar, cane, fruits, nuts, and vegetables.
Almost half (47 percent) of Australia’s total area is occupied by farms or ranches, and agriculture provides 2.2 percent of the country’s total employment.
5. What are the pillars of integrated desert farming?
The integrated desert farming system relies on three pillars:
The public sector (and funding) for research
The private sector (such as public-private partnerships) for suitable technology design and profit-driven scale-up
The vital knowledge of desert communities to make sure the innovation packages are tailored to specific settings
6. What type of results does desert farming create?
Increases overall productivity by reducing risk in vulnerable food systems, creating job opportunities, and strengthening value chains
Improves the livelihood resilience of families, farmers, and fragile communities
Creates flexible and sustainable agriculture, water and land management systems that incorporate increasing salinity (increased research has shown that saline water can now be used for aquaculture and desalinated water should be used for crops, particularly on hardy rangeland species, cacti, and trees, including date palms)
Promotes intercropping, which is the practice of crops and trees being grown together to create shade and windbreaks for better microclimate conditions (this increases other crops’ heat and drought tolerance as well)
Protects and enriches the soil with organic matter and microorganisms
Improves water holding capacity by integrating livestock and fish in the system
Combines heat-resistant crops like sorghum and barley with water-saving strategies to significantly contribute to the impact and resilience of these integrated systems
Replaces diesel with solar power as a source of energy for pumping groundwater and for desalination
Recognizes the untapped potential of both women and youth in communities and looks to tap into those by creating job opportunities and improved access to agriculture through programs with value-added livestock products or by developing technology for alternative feed resources from food, vegetable, and fruit waste to generate income
7. What are desert farming technologies?
Water reuse is also known as water recycling or water reclamation.
This process reclaims water from a variety of sources and then treats it so it can be reused for beneficial purposes.
These purposes include agriculture, irrigation, potable water resources, groundwater replenishment, industrial processes, and environmental restoration.
According to the EPA, reused water can be a viable alternative to existing water supplies and can enhance water security, sustainability, and resilience.
There are two types of water reuse: planned or unplanned.
Unplanned water occurs in situations where the source of water is previously used water.
For example, this occurs when communities use waters from local rivers that receive treated wastewater discharges from communities upstream.
Planned water reuse is when water systems are designed with the goal of using recycled water.
Examples of planned reuse include agricultural and landscape irrigation, industrial process water, potable water supplies, and groundwater supply management.
What are the uses for recycled water?
- Irrigation for agriculture
- Irrigation for landscaping (parks, rights-of-way, golf courses)
- Municipal water supply
- Process water for power plants, refineries, mills, and factories
- Indoor uses such as toilet flushing
- Dust control or surface cleaning of roads, construction sites, and other trafficked areas
- Concrete mixing and other construction processes
- Supplying artificial lakes and inland or coastal aquifers
- Environmental restoration
Desalination is the process of removing salt from seawater.
It is increasingly being used around the world to provide people with fresh water.
The parameters for saline water are as follows:
- Freshwater – Less than 1,000 ppm
- Slightly saline water – From 1,000 ppm to 3,000 ppm
- Moderately saline water – From 3,000 ppm to 10,000 ppm
- Highly saline water – From 10,000 ppm to 35,000 ppm
As a metric, ocean water contains about 35,000 ppm of salt.
The two most common ways to desalinate water are through reverse osmosis and distillation.
Reverse osmosis pushes water through small filters to leave salt behind.
Distillation involves boiling water and collecting water vapor during the process.
Distillation is one of mankind’s earliest forms of water treatment.
It is not new, and in ancient times, many civilizations would use this process during sailing excursions to convert seawater to drinking water.
When it comes to desert farming, it is an incredibly useful way to continue to supply the world with food.
The World Health Organization predicts that, by 2025, half of the global population will be living in water-stressed areas.
Fortunately, saline water may be able to meet our needs even when freshwater can’t.
The planet’s freshwater may be limited, but there’s an ample amount of seawater and sunlight that can allow us to grow food in the middle of a desert as long as we use the right technology.
Not only is desalination a key to this success, but there have also been successful seawater greenhouses in arid, sunbaked coastal locations.
Oman, the UAE, and Australia have shown promise with this technology.
You can read more about how to grow food from seawater in this BBC article.
Drip irrigation is one of the best technologies invented for desert farming.
The alternatives to drip irrigation include surface irrigation and overhead irrigation.
Surface irrigation techniques involve covering an entire field with water.
Overhead irrigation wets the plant but produces runoff.
Drip irrigation, on the other hand, is a more controlled method of irrigation that prevents water waste.
Drip irrigation is facilitated by the use of drip emitters.
Drip emitters release water in a slow and steady fashion.
They’re typically arranged in rows on the ground and connected to a water source by a hose.
The second version of drip irrigation uses a hose that has drip emitters built into it; this is called a trickle tape.
Drip irrigation is highly economical and precise.
The control it allows prevents water waste, and its slow flow of water almost guarantees that it will be absorbed into the ground instead of evaporated.
If you maintain your drip-irrigation system, it will all but eliminate water running off wastefully from your plants.
Hydrogel for irrigation
A Turkish startup recently developed a multi-functional hydrogel to help irrigate crops in arid desert conditions.
This product is a super absorbent polymer that features natural clay nanotubes filled with active agents that promote crop health.
Refilling water pocket
A Dutch startup developed an alternative for irrigation in desert regions.
SolidWater is a potassium poly-acrylate that provides plants with a refilling pocket of water that easily transfers to the roots.
The roots can extract the water from the product when necessary.
This optimized water flow allows plants to grow faster.
Water retaining network
A Norwegian startup developed Liquid Nanoclay (LNC) made of clay and water.
By applying LNC to arid soil and desert sand, you enable and enhance the soil’s ability to retain water and nutrients.
This helps turn deserts into fertile green lands.
8. How can science help to enhance the practice of desert farming?
Originally, deserts were seen as barren and inhospitable.
However, we now know that deserts have the ability to produce food, nutrition, jobs, and livelihoods for millions.
You just need to mitigate their challenges with science and research.
With climate change upon us, this is an area that must be consistently funded to ensure that we have enough food and water for everyone.
Even the next five years may present challenges with increasing desertification…so the time to figure out how to address this is now!
If you’re attempting to farm in the desert, we know it can be challenging.
Fortunately, there are numerous technologies that can help you transform your land regardless of how much freshwater is available.
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Disclaimer: we are not lawyers, accountants or financial advisors and the information in this article is for informational purposes only. This article is based on our own research and experience and we do our best to keep it accurate and up-to-date, but it may contain errors. Please be sure to consult a legal or financial professional before making any investment decisions.