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A date with the palm doctor

Silvia Radan / 2 June 2012

Abu Dhabi Farmers Services Centre’s improved date palm nutrition and management programme is helping Emiratis grow healthier trees and harvest bigger fruits and prizes

The lonely chimpanzee looking hot in the large, glassless enclosure is certainly an arresting sight, but we are not here to see the wild monkey.

“Abdulla is in a meeting, so he is not coming,” announces Dr Ismail Al Hosani.

That is a bit unfortunate, but we are not here to see Abdulla Ibrahim Al Hosani either. We are here to see his farm.

Down in Al Rahba, about half way between Abu Dhabi and Dubai emirates, 2,100 date palm tree farms are spreading over the sandy and salty land. Last year, 20 of them signed up for the Farmers Services Centre’s (FSC) improved date palm nutrition and management programme. Abdulla Ibrahim Al Hosani’s farm was one of them.

On a hot, but beautiful morning, Dr Hosani, farm expert at the FSC in Abu Dhabi, and Ray Moule, technical services director at the FSC in Abu Dhabi, walks us through Abdulla’s 180 palm farm in Al Rahba, explaining why the ratab (half ripen dates) production this year is going to be much better when ready for harvesting by the end of this month.

“The programme involves treating the trees with controlled-release fertilisers, soil additives and organic plant food,” explains Ray.

“For this we worked with a locally based company that had already developed a special fertiliser for palm trees, but we wanted to improve it so now the mixture contains soil conditioner and organic nutrients,” he adds.

The FSC began this programme in 2010, in the Western Region of Abu Dhabi, with 20,000 palm trees from 50 farms. The result was healthier trees and bigger fruits.

Date palms have long been a tradition of this country, although proper farming was only introduced in the past 50 years. Much of the planting and subsequent palm management, though, has been in the hands of expatriate manual labour, many of whom have little depth of experience with date palms. In time, increasing urbanisation meant that farm owners moved to cities, keeping their farms as a hobby, rather than a business, and visiting them rather than managing them directly. The result is a decline in the quality of plantation and serious pest infections and diseases of the trees. On top of that there is poor irrigation control and a gradual decline in the water quality, with increasing salinity, producing low-quality and small fruit because the trees are “drinking” too much bad water.

“Two years ago when we visited the farms in the Western Region, we noticed the farmers were watering as much as 1,500 litres per tree per day! After applying our scheduling irrigation programme, this was reduced to 30 litres per tree per day,” reveals Ray.

In fact, the FSC had a lot of work to do at the start of its programme and a lot of it was to convince the farmers to clean up their trees.

“Some would even say things like ‘I will shoot you if you touch my tree’,” says Dr Ismail.

“But eventually we convinced each one of them that it is beneficial for the palm tree to cut its side shoots. When we showed them how much larvae and all kind of other pests and fungal infections, especially the black scorch, are hiding behind the side shoots, eating up and weakening the tree, they began to listen to us,” he adds.

After decades without proper pruning and trimming, it took up to six hours to clean each palm tree. The FSC then gave the farmers new irrigation equipment, teaching them to water the roots further away from the tree, so the trunk does not become too wet, and thus rotten. Buckets filled with water and pheromone were also placed between the trees to attract, trap and drown insects, to further reduce pest. Once everything was in place, the special fertiliser, soil conditioner and organic plant food mixture were spread around the tree, 30cm deep in the ground and about one metre away from the trunk.

“I can’t say that the actual taste of the dates has improved. To me, they taste the same before and after the programme. What has improved is the fruit size and the health of the tree,” says Dr Ismail.

“If you look at these palm trees and the ones at the farm next door, you’ll see a big difference.”

Indeed, a quick pick in the neighbouring farm showed a much more poorly looking plantation. Not well maintained and cleaned, every single tree was infested with pests and fungal diseases, some of them so “weak” that they were close to  falling down.

“Look at this one! See how yellow the leaves have become? That’s because it was not pruned,” points out Dr Ismail.

He recommends that when the water salinity is not too high (less than 5,000 parts per million), only 25 leaves should be left in the centre of the tree and about one bunch of dates for every five leaves. When the ground water is too salty, as is the case in Al Rahba, which is too close to the sea, there should be no more than one bunch of dates for every 10 leaves. “Look at this bunch of dates! You can see that they are very uneven. Some fruit are big, some are medium and some are very small. Some are already rotten too,” says Dr Ismail, still checking the palms of the unkept farm.

Every bunch of dates weighs between 30 and 40kg. With the FSC programme, the quantity of the bunch stayed the same, but the fruit was bigger. Yields of untreated palms gave about 120 to 150 dates per kilogramme, while treated palms produced 50 to 70 dates per kilogramme, meaning more flesh and less stone.

“Last year, 12 participating farmers in our programme won prizes in the Liwa Dates Festival,” points out Ray.

Not just the farmers did well, but the FSC itself won one of the prizes in the 2011 Khalifa International Date Palm Awards.

The nutrition programme it offers to farmers in the emirate has now extended to 25 more farms in the Western Region, 20 in Al Rahba area and 95 in Al Ain area. All these 190 farms benefit from a free-of-charge fertiliser and nutrients mixture that otherwise would cost Dh120 per palm tree.

“The good thing is that you only need to apply it for two to three years to build up the fertility, then reduce it to a minimum,” says Ray.

“Like with every business, you first have to invest. And there is very good business potential in date farming. Supermarkets, for example, are very keen on selling fresh, ratab dates, which are not available to buy in Abu Dhabi. Last year they bought some from a farm in Ras Al Khaimah, but the quality was not very good.”

There are 24,065 date palm farms in Abu Dhabi emirate with a total of 6,946,572 date palm trees. Many of them, though, are kept as a hobby, rather than a source of income. Dates are offered to family and friends or used as animal feed. Those who sell, they sell to Al Foah company, the biggest dates company not just in the emirate, but in the world. Yet, since Al Foah promotes small and medium enterprises, the bigger the dates quantity farmers want to sell, the less Al Foah pays, thus putting off many large farms. Furthermore, the company buys, but doesn’t sell ratab dates. On the market or not, the best crops, though, are bound to be found at Liwa Dates Festival on July 12-18.







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