Jerusalem24– For those tempted to grow their own vegetables but wishing they could do away with the tilling and digging and sowing involved, soilless culture might just be the answer. Hydroponics, aquaponics and aeroponics are different types of cultures which all share one common feature: the plants aren’t grown in soil, but rather nutrient-rich water or some other type of medium.
In this episode of Wake Up Palestine, Raji Najami talks to us about Habaq Farm, a hydroponic agricultural project in Birzeit, north of Ramallah, from which he grows salads and leafy greens to distribute to local restaurants and farmers’ markets. Raji launched Habaq Farm in 2017 after quitting a career of 15 years in telecoms. “I wanted something that was not bound to a desk, a chair and a laptop. And I wanted to see the fruits of my labor. Agriculture was actually one of the first things that came to my mind.”
Raji is keen to share the knowledge and experience he’s gained with anyone interested in starting their own project. Hydroponics is within reach of anyone with a minimal amount of space and a limited budget, he says, and the practice has been gaining traction in recent years.
(You can reach Raji Najami on the Whatsapp number available on the Habaq Farm Facebook page.)
Creating green spaces in an urban setting
Part of the appeal of hydroponics and other soilless cultures is the possibility of developing them in spaces that are not traditionally utilized for such purposes.
“It’s getting a lot of traction because you can use small spaces really. So a balcony, a rooftop, a backyard… It doesn’t need soil so it can be done in an urban setting, whether it’s a small piece of land in the middle of the city or a parking lot in your house.”
Raji says that after the Corona pandemic he saw a trend in people enquiring about the practice, which he attributes to an increased awareness of food and health issues.
“People are more involved with their own food production because they want to know the sources and how it’s being produced. People are being more attentive to what they’re eating, and there’s a need for produce that is not treated with harsh chemicals or that is not sprayed with pesticides or fungicides.”
“Knowledge has never been more accessible”
Hydroponic culture uses up to 80-85% less water than traditional agriculture, as it retains water within the system it’s being used in rather than leaching it into the ground. It also allows for a higher density of produce per square meter and thus a higher yield. There is also less labor involved, and fewer of the problems associated with growing food in soil such as disease and fungus, reducing or eliminating the need for harsh chemicals.
However, depending on the size of the project, there are higher upfront costs associated with buying equipment – and it does require some specialized know-how, such as of water-treatment practices.
“I don’t see these as problems,” says Raji. “I just see it as a different technology.”
The higher upfront costs, he says, are no barrier to entry-level activities or hobbyists: “There is a lot of DIY, that you can build the systems that we use to produce the vegetables. So people can create green spaces within the small areas that they have with a limited budget.”
As for the specialized know-how, Raji reminds us that in the age of the internet, “it’s all there online. People can watch videos, people can ask questions on forums. There’s a lot of tutorials everywhere. I’ll be happy to answer any questions people have. Knowledge has not been more accessible in our life.”
“We need to go back to producing our own food”
He thinks this and other types of soilless culture have a distinct future here in Palestine where water and land access are scarce, and there are endemic as well as periodic problems with the food supply-chain.
“We’ve seen it multiple times in Palestine where the roads were cut and you couldn’t reach cities or areas that produce food. When the Corona hit, and previously during the Second Intifada when the roads were closed, food supplies got disrupted.”
The way to counter this, he says, is to have small- and medium-sized productions which connect different areas, with food being produced by and for the local community. “We need to go back to producing our own food. There is a lot of foods that we’re not planting anymore in Palestine. Fruit production is almost zero in Palestine. A lot of our fruits are imported. A lot of our greens and salads are not grown locally.”
He also points to other logistical issues such as the relatively high cost of gas in Palestine, which make scaling down the need for long-distance transportation of fresh produce even more pertinent.
Most importantly, though, local systems of food production reduce reliance on food imports.
“Add to that, we have a water crisis in Palestine, we don’t have enough water. That’s why I think practices like hydroponics or non-traditional agriculture will gain more traction. It gives the solution to a problem that we’re already going through.”
“There’s always a market for food”
Raji encourages anyone who should feel so inclined to commit to the adventure. “If you’re doing it for a hobby, go for it. There’s nothing to worry about. It’s not hard, you’ll learn as you go. I’ll be happy to answer any questions people have.”
“On a commercial level: know your market. That’s the biggest question you need to answer before you start your project. What are you going to plant, how are you going to sell it, where you’re going to sell it, and to whom you’re going to sell it.”
Palestine, he says, lacks many different agricultural products, and there exists a real potential for hydroponic farmers to grow and flourish. He says if you’ve done your homework and know your produce and which markets you’ll be catering to, “Go ahead. You’re creating food. There’s always a need for food. There’s always a market for it.”
Listen to the full interview with Raji Najami on this episode of Wake Up Palestine.