quotes How agriculture unites the strands of AlUla’s comprehensive regeneration

22 December 2023
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Updated 22 December 2023

How agriculture unites the strands of AlUla’s comprehensive regeneration

The comprehensive regeneration of AlUla has many aspects, from the greening of schools to the restoration of earthen architecture, and from scholarships for young people to the diversification of the regional economy.

Comprehensive regeneration is a concept developed by the Royal Commission for AlUla, in partnership with the International Union for Conservation of Nature, in its sustainable development of AlUla — employing a diverse set of principles and approaches built around the goal of revitalizing not only the landscape but how people and societies interact with their surroundings. Its areas of emphasis include restoring heritage and culture to benefit future generations, engaging communities, safeguarding the environment — and development, growth and activation.

Agriculture has holistic value to comprehensive regeneration. Agriculture unites economic, social and environmental strands. We are creating a sustainable agriculture sector at the nexus of heritage and innovation-driven production methods — placing AlUla on the world map of high-quality products, unparalleled cultural agritourism experiences, and ecological conservation.

We will get there by boosting high-quality primary and value-added agricultural production through developing effective sector plans and policies, promoting efficient and innovative practices, fostering sector collaboration, establishing and marketing a unique heritage-rooted brand, and empowering a knowledge-based ecosystem.

The RCU’s work in agriculture aligns with the goals of the Saudi Green Initiative to combat climate change, improve quality of life, and protect the environment for future generations. It also accords with the Kingdom’s agriculture strategy, to create a sustainable agricultural sector that achieves food and water security as well as economic, social and environmental development.

This alignment was an essential component of the Kingdom’s preparations for the SGI Forum, which took place alongside the COP28 conference on climate change in Dubai. The regeneration of agriculture at AlUla supports the SGI, in particular the goal of regreening the landscape.

Environmental regeneration

The agriculture team’s work at AlUla began with environmental regeneration. Sustainable traditional practices that worked in harmony with nature had, since the 1950s, lost ground to machine-led modern practices that depleted the water table.

We are changing this.

The RCU agriculture team has embarked on a strategy to transform agricultural irrigation in AlUla. The strategy will apply innovative technologies and practices to achieve maximum efficiency in on-farm water management and move to a collective supply and distribution system that is more efficient than on-farm wells.

Further, environmental best practices are an important part of our workshops and advisory services with farmers across the area. Overall, we have conducted 94 training workshops for 1,070 farmers and provided 950 advisory services through outreach and on-request field visits. In particular, our Agriculture Training & Eco Gardening 2023 project aims to train 300 farmers, 675 students, 900 visitors, tourists, residents, and 90 producer families.

The RCU’s eco-friendly projects include a large-scale composting program for organic waste and an integrated pest-management program. Since the composting program began in January 2022, the composting centers at the Cultural Oasis and Mughayra have collected 250,000 cubic meters of organic farm waste that is converted to soil-enhancing compost for the farms of AlUla. Meanwhile, the pest-management system monitors and scouts for pest species, assesses their impact, and instructs farmers in the use of soft pesticides as alternatives to broad-spectrum chemical pesticides.

This all creates a virtuous cycle: recycled waste from date farms becomes compost, which improves the water-holding capacity of the soil and reduces evaporation so that less water is needed to irrigate the date palms, which in turn produce organic waste from annual pruning and start the cycle anew. Moreover, by clearing away organic waste, we remove habitat for pests such as the red palm weevil.

The RCU’s work in agriculture aligns with the goals of the Saudi Green Initiative to combat climate change, improve quality of life, and protect the environment for future generations.

Another way we have been reducing waste while doing good for the community is by donating unsold produce from our farmers’ markets to local charitable organizations.

While our international collaborators have provided valuable support — including the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, the French Agency for the Development of AlUla and, for our irrigation programs, BRL Ingenierie of Nimes, France — our most valuable partners are of course the farmers.

Economic regeneration

The best example of the economic regeneration of agriculture in AlUla is dates.

They are the region’s main crop by a wide margin, but the harvests had become low in yield, the quality was inconsistent and the market indifferent.

By collaborating with the farmers to improve the quality and grading of their harvest, we are getting yields that are 2 to 2.5 times what they were before, with quality that is much improved. By attracting more national and international buyers to AlUla’s date auctions, we are securing higher prices for the farmers.

From an average on-tree price of SR1.5 ($0.40) per kg in the seasons prior to the first AlUla Dates Festival, we reached an average of SR10.3 ($2.75) per kg at this year’s fourth edition of the festival, with auctions held from Sept. 8 to Oct. 28.

In some very lively auctions for the coveted Majdool dates, our farmers received as much as SR60 ($16) per kg. The famous Ajwa variety, praised in hadiths for its health benefits, fetched as much as SR38 ($10.13) per kg. The golden-brown Barni variety in the Mabroom quality grade typically sold for about SR30 ($8) per kg.

One of our strategic goals is to enhance the positioning of AlUla dates, particularly the Barni variety, on the international food scene.

With that in mind, we took 20 farmers and youths to the 4th International Exhibition for Dates in Riyadh, from Dec. 5 to 14. And we have set a three-year target to certify 500 farms with the Saudi Dates Mark certification, an initiative of the National Centre for Palms & Dates that recognizes quality and improves access to export markets.

Social regeneration

The community is rediscovering agriculture.

You can see the restored connection at our farmers’ markets such as the Al-Manshiya market with 35 to 40 permanent stalls, and the central market at Al-Sukhayrat.

Stalls at the farmers’ markets are largely operated by rural women. In this way they are becoming more involved with the town community — and so is the town community becoming more involved with the farm community.

Traditionally, the residents of AlUla Old Town were strongly connected to their farms in the adjacent Cultural Oasis, and the residents of other AlUla villages were connected to their farms immediately adjacent to those villages. The communities relied on the farms for their subsistence prior to the modern era in which mostly imported food is supplied through supermarkets. Through the regeneration of agriculture at AlUla we are enabling the community to restore the connections between the community, traditional values, and the land.

I have worked in many places, from East Africa to Maharashtra to Western Australia, and this is the most exciting place I have been for the response of the community to agricultural regeneration — the farming community most strongly, but the wider community as well.

The comprehensive regeneration of farming in AlUla County benefits the environment, the economy, and the people. I look forward to the day when AlUla’s agriculture will be as fertile and sustainable as it was in the past. With the help of the county’s farmers we are getting there, season by season.

James Thompson is the senior manager of agriculture planning at the RCU.