The Challenges of Desert Farming and the DDC’s Responsibility:
The desert provides challenges that each segment of the diverse
population of farmers there must overcome. Preparing desert land for cultivation, although hugely expensive, is only the first step in making the land productive. Desert soils have virtually no natural fertility, and therefore successful crop production requires the application of soil amendments and nutrients for plants growth. Although provision of physical infrastructure has been the responsibility of government agencies, improving soil conditions to the point where agriculture can be sustained is left to the cultivators themselves. This process of creating a productive base can take years and considerable investment in labor and inputs. Depending on initial soil conditions and water availability, raising productivity to minimum economic levels can take between three and ten years.
In any case, environmental and resource conditions are very different from those in the valley and delta where most desert farmers are originally from. Desert areas are characterized by the infertile sandy, alkaline, or saline soils. Climatically, there is an almost constant wind, very low humidity, and extreme variations in diurnal and seasonal temperatures. Crops that do well in the beneficent conditions of Egypt’s old lands rarely flourish under desert conditions. Nevertheless, it is possible to achieve reasonable agricultural returns in most of the New Lands, provided there is sufficient water available, the soil can be amended, and no serious drainage problems occur, with patience, reasonable investment, and considerable skill.
The founding vision of the American University in Cairo's Desert
Development Center is to provide a center of excellence in applied research and learning for the sustainable development of Egypt's desert areas. The programs of the DDC have always sought ways to effectively and efficiently transfer appropriate knowledge and experience of desert development to its stakeholders, be they new desert settlers, investors, university students, or policy makers. Towards that end the DDC training program has served and continues to serve the farmers working Egypt’s deserts by improving their skills, knowledge, and technologies for desert cultivation.
Who is in the Desert?
The Egyptian desert has been populated by four waves of settlers. During the first and longest wave of settlement, roughly from 1951-81, state farms constituted about 56% of the land reclaimed and state farm employees were the largest category of settler. The employees were mostly recruited from villages and towns in the delta adjacent to the early desert development areas. By 1982 the period of state farms was over and the second wave of settlement began as large tracts were privatized. A proportion was distributed to former state farm employees, with the amount received by each depending on length of employment and occupational seniority. Land was also sold to small investors, usually private individuals who purchased between 20 and 50 feddans, usually for the purpose of establishing a modest commercial farm. The third wave of settlement, 1988-92, was characterized by renewed emphasis on allocations to social categories, particularly young graduates who received 5 feddan farms and small houses in return for pledges not to seek civil service employment. About a third of newly reclaimed land was sold to small investors during this period. During the fourth wave, 1993-97, large-scale private sector enterprises received about 41% of allocated land, small investors 36%, and social categories about 23%. This last group during this period included displaced tenant beneficiaries for the first time. The four waves of settlement have left the Egyptian deserts with a diverse population including many small holders placed there as part of social programs.
In the New Lands, reclaimed desert, returns to labor and investment tend to be low relative to the Old Lands (and also relative to large farms in the New Lands). Low productivity has many sources, but environmental constraints, coupled with knowledge, support, and financing constraints are the major factors. Applied research in many locations, including the DDC's own research stations in the New Lands, has demonstrated that the environmental constraints can be overcome, or at least mitigated, by use of appropriate technologies and agricultural practices, including proper farm management techniques. However, technical and managerial knowledge appropriate to sustainable desert agricultural development is very often lacking among settler communities made up either of relocated urbanites, poor agriculturists from the Old Lands with limited education, retired state employees, or a combination of these. The DDC’s various training programs seek to bridge this knowledge gap supplying the desert’s new small holders with the necessary knowledge, technology, and confidence to make their farms successful and profitable.