The exponential increase of the world population through time is heaping more pressure on the agricultural sector to produce food amounts enough to feed the world. There is a significant need for better water management and irrigation practices to increase agricultural production using the same amount of water, and even less. On the other hand, land resources are of equal importance and their use in a sustainable manner is a key factor moving forward.
How can the agribusiness sector contribute towards a sustainable future? More importantly, what kind of steps is Debbane Saikali Group taking in the right direction?
Hydroponics is defined as not using soil as substrate for crop production (FAO, 2020). The major advantage with such a system is the absence of weeds and other soil- borne pests, no toxic pesticide residues, better use of water, better control over nutrients and oxygen, and increased crop quality and yields.
Exotica has been using the hydroponics system in its nurseries since 1998. Back then, Exotica engineers learned the advanced technologies of the new growing systems in Europe, imported them to Lebanon, and through continuous support from European experts till this day, they have been successful in maintaining and optimizing these systems.
Roses are grown in perlite, which allows growers to plant double the roses per square meter, providing a better economic return. Irrigation and fertilizers are supplied through automated systems, and water demand is determined through soil sensors in the growing media. This automated fertigation process, along with the controlled environment of the greenhouse, enables the growers to produce high quality roses that are uniform across the greenhouse.
Other than ornamentals, Debbane Freres has adopted hydroponics in the agricultural industry since the early 2000’s. Our trial station in Aadloun encompasses 12,000 square meters of hydroponically grown tomatoes, cucumbers and eggplants. The greenhouses have a controlled environment with respect to temperature, humidity, and irrigation. The main advantages of this system include, but are not limited to the following:
- Up to 70% less water use
- Significant reduction in pesticide use
- More yield than conventional agriculture
Another advanced form of hydroponics, the Nutrient Film Technique (NFT), has been adopted in the
Bouar trial station where we are growing lettuce. Similarly, advantages of NFT include, but are not limited to the following
- Growing up to 4 times more lettuce per square meter
- Delivery up to 10 seasons per year compared to a maximum of 5 season in traditional agriculture
Bouar station also hosts strawberries planted hydroponically in Rockwool, another inert mineral substrate. Achieving high yields and high quality fruits.
Other than hydroponics, Debbane is adopting new planting and cultivation methods in the grapes sector. With the idea originating from Italy, vineyards are grown under plastic film covers, in an effort to protect the vines during critical periods of adverse weather conditions, mainly hail storms, spring frost and hot wind storms in summer. Furthermore, the plastic film cover provides a better microclimate for the vineyard, allowing harvest time to be achieved earlier for early varieties, and later for late varieties. In order for this cultivation method to be fully effective, Debbane secured the exclusivity of the best protected grape varieties from California to fit every segment of the market. We can now produce grapes from early June till end December.
Debbane Freres has already adopted the new vineyard structure in Bekaa, North, and most recently in the South of Lebanon where a 15 hectares vineyard has been installed at Wazzani. The project at Wazzani is finalized, with all the structures installed and covered, and all the grapes planted. Production is expected to start in 2021.
The idea of hydroponics has surely disrupted the traditional ornamental and agricultural markets, being able to provide higher quality produce, with greater amounts, at faster rates and most importantly while using less land and resources. So, why hasn’t Debbane been able to properly commercialize it on the national and regional scale?
Hydroponics projects have a significantly higher initial investment due to the multi-span structure, climate control, automated irrigation system, cost of substrate that needs to be changed yearly and others. Many farmers/investors refrain from venturing into an investment of such magnitude, especially that the Lebanese produce markets’ prices are continuously fluctuating. Moreover, the government does not subsidize such sustainable solutions to help and encourage the Lebanese farmer to invest.
The same applies for the grape’s projects, whereby the initial cost of investment is almost 5 times more than that of a traditional vineyard. With the current financial crisis and the uncertainty of the Lebanese economy going forward, the likelihood of selling such projects continues to be limited.
Mentality and Support
Like any innovation, the main challenge is the mentality of the target customer, which in our case is the farmer; very tough. Without solid facts and studies proving the efficiency and feasibility of our projects, it is very hard to market and sell projects.
On the other hand, we have not been successful enough on our demonstration sites to present clear-cut data, proving that Hydroponically grown vegetables and strawberries yield consistently a better and more abundant crop than soil-planted ones. More focus and intensified work will be provided from our side, as we believe this is certainly going to be a technique to spread in the near future. We also need to build and train the teams who will be in charge of supporting the customers who will follow these techniques.
Steps moving forward
In order to tackle these challenges, we are taking several steps moving forward. Firstly, through trials, we are optimizing our structures in an effort to lower cost per square meter, therefore lowering the amount of initial investment required. Secondly, we are forming a committee that will be dedicated to sharing ideas and expertise in the aforementioned innovative solutions, which also serves the purpose of lowering and optimizing the operational expenses of these projects. Finally, we continue to expose ourselves to innovations and developments through seminars, fairs and exhibitions, whereby we can learn from outside knowledge, adapt what we learned to our resources and capabilities, and provide the market with tailor made solutions.
Through innovation and technologies, Debbane continues to strive in the face of the agricultural challenges in the region, while aiming to optimize land and water use and provide farmers with holistic agricultural solutions towards a sustainable future.