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Growing with brackish water in the desert

The AgroCenter in the Negev desert in Israel does research to find the best crops and varieties for growing in this desert using the brackish water that’s available in the area. The goal of the center is to share their knowledge with the farmers.

Research center is experimenting with different rootstocks and grafting methods

Michal Amichai, Director, Division Of Vegetables and Herbs, took us on a tour through the center, starting with the little champion of the facility, the cherry tomato on the vine. “When we started this center the purpose was to find out which crop is the best for our area. We can grow cucumbers everywhere in Israel, so we said let’s grow something that we will be the best at. Our focus is now on the cherry tomato on the vine. 75 percent of this products exports comes from this area.”

Michal Amichai, Director Division Of Vegetables and Herbs

But not only tomatoes are experimented in the AgroCenter. Also sweet and hot peppers, egg plants, zucchini and fresh herbs are tested. “What we do here in the station is find out which is the best variety to grow in Negev conditions. Seed companies in Israel are developing new varieties all the time. We check these varieties and let the growers know which variety is the strongest and which can give them the highest yield.”

Olive trees in the middle of the desert

There are even trials going on to grow olive, pomegranate and almond trees using brackish water. “These trials take much longer than the experiments on vegetables. For vegetables we can share the results after two years, but with the trees it takes over twenty years. Over the years we will find a way to irrigate olive trees with only the brackish water.”

For the cultivation of vegetables the brackish water needs to be mixed with fresh water which comes from the desalination centre in Ashkelon. “This fresh water doesn’t contain any nutrients and minerals. The brackish water is full of minerals but also contains a lot of salt, ten times more salt than in drinking water. We mix these two to find out what works best for the plants. The more brackish water, the cheaper the production of the produce, which of course is better for the grower.”

Every tomato grower in the Negev uses this system to mix brackish water and desalinated water

To make a mix of the two different sorts of water the AgroCenter has developed a special computer, with which you can adjust the electrical conductivity level. “The water in this area is not stable, yet if you want to use the water for the irrigation of your plants, it needs to be stable. With our system the farmer can adjust the level of salinity to whatever level is best for his farm. It’s a very special system.”

Next to the trials with the water, the research facility is looking on how to control the climate to create optimal growing conditions for the different crops. “The problem in our area is that we have very cold winters, but with very high radiation. We’re now working with a special acclimate control system. In the winter it closes the plastic walls during the days so the greenhouse can heat up with the energy that we have from the sun. We believe that this will increase the general average temperature and will compensate the low temperature over the night. We hope it will positively affect the productivity of the area in winter time and will increase the yield”

“We are always trying different things here in the center, because the world is always changing and we want to offer the farmers in this area the best options for cultivating their crops.
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