In the South of Jordan, the desert is blooming. Among 720 square kilometers of cliffs, caverns, granite mountains, and piles of sand, Rum Farm is flourishing. Wadi Rum is a desert valley in the midst of sandstone and granite, 60 kilometers east of Aqaba, Jordan’s only coastal city. By using a combination of ancient and modern farming techniques, this farm in the Wadi Rum provides much of the food consumed in Jordan.
For thousands of years, people have struggled to live in the harsh arid desert on the border of Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Little rain precipitation falls on Wadi Rum. From December to March, when the desert gets the most rain, the average rainfall is only five millimeters per month. Despite this, hunters, farmers, traders, and pastoralists have managed to survive its harsh climate. Most Wadi Rum residents have focused on converting the desert into a tourist attraction. Their efforts, however, have extended beyond protecting the natural beauty of this desert. In Wadi Rum, or the Valley of the Moon as it is often called, agriculture has thrived for more than twenty years.
In 1986, the Rum Farm was established on 2,000 hectares of desert. At first glance, farming in a desert may seem inefficient or even impossible, but a key geographical feature actually makes farming in the Wadi Rum conceivable. Below this desert lies a large aquifer, which provides drinking water to most Jordanians and water to support the crops grown above it. Water is pulled from the aquifer 30 to 400 meters deep and then used to irrigate 78 hectares of circular fields. These fields, which look like crop circles in aerial photographs, rely on pivoting watering mechanisms to grow crops.
According to the Managing Director of Rum Farm, Sijal Majali, “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….”
Despite the relatively reliable water source, farming in the desert does pose difficulties that require solutions from technology and agricultural experts. First, to conserve water and to ensure an adequate supply during particularly hot days, water is collected in poly-plastic tunnels.
At the same time, farmers have cultivated species that support the growth of other crops. Since Wadi Rum does not naturally include ground cover and supporting foliage, succulents and legume trees have been planted. Permaculture expert Geoff Lawton notes that, “very hardy succulent ground covers also greatly reduce evaporation while having very little water demand themselves — their gel content reduces soil surface temperatures and also reducing the negative effects of shifting sands.” According to local lore, ancient Egyptians and Nabateans used similar techniques to grow crops during their times.
The combination of geographical benefits, ancient farming techniques and modern irrigation technologies has allowed Wadi Rum Farm to reach success. Now, grains, eggplants, figs, potatoes, squash, tomatoes, and pomegranates, among other vegetables, are sent from Wadi Rum to feed individuals across Jordan.