Letters from Jordan – On Consultation at Jordan’s Largest Farm, and Contemplating Transition

Preamble: From my recent trip to Jordan, I shared with you all the news, with loads of pictures, about the International Permaculture Conference (IPC) that will be held there in September 2011. I also slipped over the border to take a quick peek at Murad Alkufash’s work in the West Bank, and took video of the Jawaseri school garden project. In my bid to multitask, I also had opportunity to accompany Geoff Lawton on a consultation in the Wadi Rum district in the south of the country, where we combined the consultation with our investigations for a campsite for the IPC (photos of the latter can be seen via the first link above).

The consultation on its own, however, is deserving of a post. It was highly interesting for many reasons that I shall outline here.

Permaculture designer/teacher, Geoff Lawton, looks at water pumped from
an aquifer under Jordan’s famous Wadi Rum desert region.
All photographs © copyright Craig Mackintosh


The Wadi Rum desert in the south of Jordan happens to be the site of Jordan’s largest mixed farm – Rum Farm. It might, for good reason, seem odd that this beautiful but largely abiotic location would host a large scale farm, let alone Jordan’s largest, but it begins to make sense when you learn that under the Wadi Rum desert (and stretching under the border mountains and well into Saudi Arabia) is a large aquifer. In fact, much of this desert nation’s water supply is dependent on this single water source.

Captured from a bus window, while crossing the no-man’s land between
Jordan and Israel/Palestine, the once-mighty Jordan river is today just
a murky trickle (see bottom centre of image) that wouldn’t
flow at all today if it wasn’t for the pollution poured into it….

In what is now potentially the most water starved nation on the planet, to say this aquifer is a precious resource is like saying an atomic bomb is a ‘little noisy’. It’s a major understatement. This water is blue gold, and it’s being pumped at a furious pace.

As most of our readers will know, using reductionist, industrial agricultural ‘systems’, as opposed to intelligent, bio-diverse permaculture design symbioses, means huge amounts of water gets polluted and wasted. Soils with poor soil structure lack the spongy characteristic that holds and filters the water they receive. Here in the desert, where evaporation is many times greater than precipitation, the wastage is multiplied manifold. Turned and churned soils hasten that evaporation process, and plantings of monocrop species without taller support species to provide shade from sun and shelter from drying winds do likewise. Salinity increases, and food production becomes a finite endeavour based on costly and finite artificial inputs.

The Wadi Rum desert

Running large scale monocrop farming anywhere should be seen as madness. Here it’s insane. Yet, a large part of Jordan’s food supply is produced at this farm – before being trucked north hundreds of kilometres through the desert to the capital of Amman and other centres in refrigerated trucks.

Head south across the border, into Saudi Arabia, and the situation is the same.

Centre pivot farming in Saudi Arabia

The precariousness of this situation is not completely lost on Jordanians, however, and thus Geoff finds himself being invited to consult on transition possibilities.

We meet in Amman to talk with Rum Farm and Astra Farm managers.
From left: Sijal Majali (Rum Farm Managing Director), Sirin Al Masri
(daughter of Mr. Sabih Taher Darwish Al-Masri) and Kamil Sadeddin
(Astra Farm Managing Director, Saudi Arabia).

Transitioning one of the world’s largest mix farms – Astra Farm, Saudi Arabia

Rum Farm is owned by Astra Farms, who have what is possibly one of the largest mixed farms in the world, in the Tabuk region in the north of Saudi Arabia. To give you an idea of scale, they have 3,000 workers, producing 10,000 tons of grapes per year, 22 million quail per year, and the list goes on with dozens of other crops.

Saudi Arabia is under intense agricultural pressure. Although similar can be said about many regions in the world, I would describe the Middle East, in particular, as being a powder keg of unrest, just waiting to blow. As we head deeper into a perpetual recession, where oil revenues will become volatile and ultimately dry up along with Saudi’s remaining reserves, it will become increasingly expensive to import food. Yet Saudi Arabia recently announced that it would phase out all domestic wheat production in favour of importing, and has been buying up land in other countries in an attempt to ease a growing water crisis. Reducing water and energy consumption while maintaining, no, increasing, food production is of paramount concern and will be the nation’s ultimate challenge.

The good news is that Kamil Sadeddin, Managing Director of Astra Farms, told us that since a 2004 consultation with Geoff they have been progressively transitioning their 3,200 hectare farm to organic production. Today, Kamil says, a full 25% of Astra Farms is chemical free – and they’re producing over 700 tons of compost per month!

Now eyes are on Jordan to begin a similar transition.

Making a start – Rum Farm, Jordan

An almost 180 degree view of just a portion of Rum Farm’s 2000 hectares of
mixed crops. Click picture for larger view.

Astra Farm’s little brother is mere kilometres from the Wadi Rum tourist township – where thousands flock for tours of some of the most beautiful desert landscapes in the world.

Rum’s Managing Director, Sijal Majali, took Geoff and I on a tour of the property. After climbing into his air-conditioned Toyota Landcruiser, and transfering his Glock from his shoulder harness to the glove box for even greater comfort, he settled down to tell us more about the farm as we drove across some of its 2,000 hectare expanse.

Most of the workers are Egyptian, some Syrian, he said, as we passed dozens of labourers working in dusty, shadeless conditions. He went on to explain that the farm employs between 300-600 workers seasonally – who produce 1,800 tons of grapes, 20,000 tons of potatoes, 10,000 tons of onions, and thousands more tons of apricots, nectarines, peaches, pears, tomatoes, figs, olives, corn, lettuce, oranges, mandarin, grapefruit, cabbage, broccoli, squash, loquat, dates and more…. Some of these crops are entirely for export (like grapes), and some almost entirely for domestic consumption (like potatoes).

The farm even has its own internal, armed police station – to maintain order amongst the migrant worker community.


Cool storage and packing facilities

As we drove my thoughts wandered to the future – projecting how Jordan would fare if this aquifer were to dry up, or if the economy collapsed over massive fuel price hikes. (Jordan doesn’t have its own oil reserves.) These large scale, centralised farms – based on massive inputs and mass-transit – would falter, with ominous consequences for the nation’s burgeoning population.

I considered how the Permaculture ideal is small scale, family managed, biodiverse land holdings – not big farms like this. And I thought about, as I often do, the need to move society towards such an ideal, to get more people onto the land. I thought about land redistribution and the corresponding need to educate those people in sustainable, permaculture systems.


Sitting in this big, flashy Landcruiser – complete with water bottles chilling in the built-in refrigerator between the seats – I had to ask myself "where does consulting for such a behemoth farm fit into this picture?"

But, I already knew the answer.

After watching contemporary business-as-usual attitudes to critical, converging problems – seeing the complacent, ponderous and reactive nature of governments and the aggressive, resource-consuming, true-cost-externalising, extractive behaviour of industry – I knew that the work that needs to be done will never happen in time. Thus finding methods to transition large systems like this is not only essential to maintaining some order, and, ultimately, peace, but it can also serve as an excellent opportunity to get permaculture concepts onto board room tables, onto fields, and into the minds of farm managers and labourers. As resources diminish and climate change exacerbates stress on our arable land base, regardless of what industrial or political shifts occur it is essential we get more agricultural workers familiarised with permaculture systems, and how to replicate them.

Showcasing these systems at some of the world’s largest agricultural sites has to be a good thing.

The consultation

Geoff talks to Sijal Majali (Rum Farm Managing Director), standing on
the five hectare section that permaculture will transform.

Geoff was given five initial hectares to design. It will be a pioneer section prior to subsequent, larger transitions on the farm. During the consultation process, I have to say I was impressed with Geoff’s boldness. Rather than compromise and water down permaculture principles through an assumption these agribusinessmen would go at it only half-heartedly, Geoff expected much, and got it.

As Geoff explained his plans, Sijal began to emanate palpable excitement.

Geoff described a biodiverse plant procession starting with leguminous and other support species, interspersed with crop sections, to create a biodiverse system of alternating crop/tree corridors – with a trellised swale running through each food forest section. He spoke of the necessary orientation of the system so the trees and bushes will protect crops from the harsh prevailing winds and afternoon sun. He described how the support species will ultimately give way to a succession of protective and productive food forest bushes and trees, which will themselves be crowned with a date palm overstory.

Alternating food forest/crop corridor profile
The crop is sheltered from sun and prevailing wind

Such a design as this allows natural soil creation processes to blossom. Leaf litter from the food forest and crop residues can combine to create humus rich soils – which in turn gives health and vitality to plants, making them less attractive to ‘pests’, and enabling the soil to hold much higher moisture levels. The plant biodiversity allows beneficial workers (insects) to take up residence and keep any of their kind from becoming ‘pests‘. Their human counterpart, the farm labourers, will also benefit from a much improved and shaded environment.

A grid of swales will be fed from a tree-shaded pond (deep and narrow to reduce evaporation) that is fed from the aquifer. This pond will overflow into the swales and can be diverted through simple gates. The swale ends will have a swivel flush pipe so swales can be drained during flood events, or to pass water on to the next section.

Drip lines for initial food forest establishment and for ongoing maintenance of the crop rows will be supplied from computer controlled solar-powered, batteryless pumps.

Aerial view of food forest section
A river trellised swale runs through it…

Salad and other annuals and perennials can be positioned in the crop sections according to their respective shade needs and sun tolerance – with respect to the sun’s aspect over the fields.

Detail of the three lines of food forest trees on each side of swales

Beginning with a high proportion of ‘non productive’ support species, soil, water and humidity conditions will arise to nurse food crops into vitality – allowing these to establish and grow until the proportion of non-food plants can shrink to virtually nil.

Rum Farm is now beginning initial stages of implementation – planning earthworks according to Geoff’s procedure manual. In the meantime, crop residues will no longer get burned. All green matter and shreddable carbonaceous material will be composted.

My primary purpose for writing this post is to encourage permaculturists everywhere to be bold and achieve much. The world needs you like never before. Fill farmers with an holistic vision and they’ll be unstoppable. With enough permaculturists out there consulting like this, we could see the kind of ecological magic that can turn sand into food transition us into a healthier, more stable future.

A different future awaits?

Further Reading:

Please see update on this consultancy here!: Desert Food Forest and Organic Commercial Production in Three Years – Update on Wadi Rum Consultancy