Monday, June 09, 2008

Cucumbers in the Desert

Deep in the heart of Sal’s desolate moonscape, amid boulders and barren sand dunes, you might just come across a 30-centimeter cucumber. A desert mirage? Hardly. Robust cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce, peppers and other crops are harvested year-round from Milot’s 15.500 kilometer farm thanks to a promising technology called hydroponics.
Hydroponics is soil-less culture (“hydro” water, “ponos”, labour). Developed by Germans in the 1860’s, it features the use of nutrient solution in place of soil, which allows for more robust yields and greatly reduces water use. While hydroponics is practiced widely in Europe, the Americas and the Middle East, it is nascent in Cape Verde, where low rainfall and little arable land (only 10% of total land mass) make it an ideal candidate for the technology. Hydroponic farms currently operate in Sao Francisco (Tom Drescher’s “VenteSol Cultura Hidroponica e Turistica” ) and Sao Domingos on Santiago in addition to Sal, while adult education classes in Santiago aim to expand it.
While techniques vary, one of the most popular is the Nutrient Film Technique (NFT). In this system, a shallow stream of nutrient-rich water flows constantly along a slightly tilted trough, which holds the plants. A non-soil medium like gravel may be used to anchor the plants, while a mechanized pump ensures a constant flow of nutrients, air and water. Usually a mesh enclosure covers the crop, retaining moisture and protecting against insects.
The advantages are tremendous. Water input is reportedly between 1/10 and 1/20 of that necessary for normal agriculture, even less than drip irrigation. That’s because no water is wasted through soil absorption or excess evaporation, and because water can be recycled through the trough. Hydroponics also uses only 1/10 the land required for normal agriculture. Indeed, it can be implemented anywhere, year round, and calls for no weeding or ground preparation. Crops are usually healthy and mature quickly, because the microbes that cause weak plant growth reside only in soil, and hydroponics allows you to control the ratio of nutrients in the solution exactly.
Still, overhead costs are high. One farmer estimated spending 6,000-7,000 euro to set up his 500-meter farm. Nevertheless, monthly yields were so good that he had recouped his investment after only seven months. Operation costs are also a factor since NFT requires constant energy to keep the water flowing. In fact, with no soil moisture reservoir, plants are prone to die quickly if watering ceases even briefly. Certain plants with deeper roots are more challenging if not impossibly to grow hydroponically.
While hydroponics is still novel in Cape Verde, diminishing rains, rising import costs, and a growing tourist market may render it essential. As the technology grows, don’t be surprised to find cucumbers in the country’s most barren landscapes.


Blogger Joan-Pol Puntal said...

HI, how are you???
Your blog is so interesting

12:33 AM  

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