Spotlight: Save farms

Farming was the major economic activity in the Sultanate before the oil boom. Majority of the Omanis still live in rural areas. Farms were the source of the livelihood in the past and our predecessors were deeply involved in the art of agriculture. Even those who are working and living in the towns or cities still own land and property in the countryside. However, as generations changed, priorities too changed in accordance with the lifestyle. Farmers now make up only 12 per cent of the Omani population compared to 60 per cent in the 1960s.
Farms in Oman seem to be no longer a priority for people as acres of land traditionally used for subsistence farming are being completely neglected or abandoned. The primary reason for reduced production is the loss of cultivated land and productivity to salinisation.
Many farms especially those located in South and North Al Batinah suffer from salinity. Saud al Mamari, a farm owner, says, “It takes too much to maintain a five-acre farm. Water scarcity is a major problem and, in Batinah, this problem aggravates with water salinity.” Al Mamari uses specific types of filters to secure water for his farm. “These filters are expensive but they are worth. Our ancestors’ legacy has to be protected.”
In this regard, the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, in 2016, supported about 30 farms suffering from high salinity of irrigation water through the introduction of desalination units. The data produced from the field surveys of 370 farms in South and North Al Batinah governorates and 57 farms in Salalah demonstrated that productivity of farms is substantially lowered by salinisation.
Crop choices become very limited and yields decline almost as salts in water and soil increase. “High value field crops such as vegetables are the first casualties of salinity, and in the most saline farms forage crops and dates tend to be the only crops,” says a report in Oman Salinity Strategy. Part of this trend is the result of the geographical expansion of larger new farms away from the smaller and more traditional farms east of the coast zone, the report adds.
The survey data also revealed that even in farms with good quality water, yields were hugely variable for other reasons. Date palm yields, for example, ranged from 0.1-8.8 tonnes per feddan (1 feddan= 1.037 acres). More importantly, top 10 per cent of farmers obtained yields that were 34-times higher than the yields of the lowest 10 per cent of farmers. Similar yield variations were also found to be true for many other crops under cultivation. There is clearly a role for improved agricultural extension services to assist farmers to maximise yields.
Another reason for fall in cultivated area is the change in the demography accompanied by the lifestyle. Instead of working in mud, the new generations take up jobs that suit their academic qualifications. They move from villages to cities leaving farms. Employing foreign workforce in the farms is another reason for deterioration of the soil as they tend to use fertilisers and pesticides without regard to the instructions issued by the government. They grow fruits and vegetables in large quantities to make money. But in the long run, it damages the soil.
The Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries has, in many times, caught violators and stressed on sustainable and judicious use of fertilisers. The changing pattern of land use from agricultural to residential has also led to reduced cultivation. Many people prefer to build houses inside their farms. That requires cutting down a number of trees to make a room for the new building. However, to regulate this issue, in 2017, the Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries issued a decision limiting buildings in agricultural land not to exceed 600 square metres per 5 acres, and 200 square metres if the area is less than one acre. Construction in those plots must be formally approved, the decision said. Soil inspection, merger of plots, modification of plot measurements, changes in title deeds must also be undertaken officially.
Agriculture has the potential to play key roles in supporting the livelihood of thousands of families, providing job opportunities and enhancing food production and food security in the Sultanate and its contribution to the gross domestic product (GDP) of Oman.