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Volume 15, Number 4July/August 1964

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A Drop Of Rain

His crops ruined, his future bleak, Ahmad 'Abd Allah was about to give up when Dr. Grover Brown appeared with an intriguing offer...

Written by Daniel Da Cruz

Back in the early 1950's Dr. Grover F. Brown had no idea that he would ever meet a man named Ahmad 'Abd Allah al-'Arfaj. Since Dr. Brown was then chief agronomist for the Soil Conservation Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C., and Ahmad 'Abd Allah was a farmer in an oasis near the Arabian Gulf, such a meeting did seem unlikely. The two men did meet, however, and the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia today is witnessing the sweeping changes that the meeting helped set in motion.

What brought the meeting about was the price of food in Dhahran, Abqaiq and Ras Tanura, the communities in Saudi Arabia where the employes of the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco) make their homes. From the viewpoint of both housewife and cost accountant those prices were high. True, they included air freight charges of 14 cents a pound for the 1,000-mile flight from Lebanon. True, there was little local production of the vegetables, fruits and eggs that the employes in Dhahran needed. But the prices were still high.

To those who wanted to reduce prices and also help broaden the base of the economy in that area it was obvious that local production of perishable truck farm products, fresh eggs and poultry was the most sensible answer. It was equally obvious that local farmers, whose knowledge of modern agriculture, finance and marketing was then minimal, were unprepared to risk their modest resources on crops unfamiliar to a region where cultivation was generally concentrated on the date palm. To try and change this situation Aramco lured Dr. Brown away from Washington with the promise of a bushel of problems and a free hand in solving them.

For Dr. Brown it was a formidable assignment. Without a technical staff and without a comprehensive body of agricultural data, he was to introduce wholly different agricultural practices to local farmers, supply—at modest prices—Aramco employes with a wide range of vegetables and poultry products foreign to the region and at the same time coach farmers in ways of raising and marketing those products with a margin of profit.

Dr. Brown, a rangy, rugged man with a scientist's appetite for problems, acknowledges today that his first look at the land where all this was to take place was discouraging. "From the plane that brought me to Saudi Arabia I could look down at the barren desert," he says. "From that height it didn't look favorable."

At about the same time it didn't look favorable to Ahmad 'Abd Allah al-'Arfaj either. As a merchant, during the first 40 years of his life, Ahmad 'Abd Allah had traveled considerably, going as far as Iran and India before deciding, shortly before Dr. Brown went to Saudi Arabia, to try his hand at farming. To this end he took possession of 10 acres of zoaqf land—leased from a Muslim religious association on life tenure—in Hofuf, an oasis town of great age some 75 miles southwest of Dhahran. Because the 12-month growing season there can produce nine crops (California's fecund Imperial Valley produces eight), Ahmad 'Abd Allah had high hopes and so planted at the edge of the desert alfalfa, pumpkins, eggplant, tomatoes and a few lime and pomegranate trees. But his optimism had turned to despair as his crops succumbed, one after the other, to the onslaughts of such destructive pests as melon fruit flies, leafhoppers, aphids, spotted cucumber beetles, alfalfa worms and locusts. Conditions had reached such a low point that Ahmad 'Abd Allah was ready to rent his land to anyone who would take it. Then Dr. Brown appeared with an intriguing offer.

"Let me," said Dr. Brown, "take over one of your ten acres for an experiment. I will supply the seed, fertilizer and advice on farming methods to the laborers, and you will supply the land, irrigation, water and labor."

In approaching Ahmad 'Abd Allah in this way, Dr. Brown was hoping to overcome a reluctance, common to farmers the world over, to change traditional methods. Dr. Brown could offer the weapons which today stock the arsenals of modern farm technology: powerful insecticides, chemical fertilizers, hardy hybrid seeds, ways to stretch the growing seasons and the means of farming for profit as well as subsistence. However, only Ahmad 'Abd Allah, he knew, could put those weapons to use and Ahmad 'Abd Allah might well refuse to experiment with innovations. Therefore, on the simple premise that seeing is believing, Dr. Brown made his proposal.

In weighing the offer, Ahmad 'Abd Allah, as he frankly admits today, was moved partly by curiosity, partly by respect for Aramco's reputation for integrity, but mostly by sheer need. He gave his assent and the experiment began.

Unquestionably, that first year was difficult for Ahmad 'Abd Allah as Dr. Brown unveiled one innovation after another, some seemingly unwise. Why, he demanded to know, did Dr. Brown spread noxious chemicals on the plants when all the world knows that natural fertilizer is best? Why plant seeds that come in airless metal cans instead of those carefully husbanded from last year's crops? Why plant this weed cauliflower when you know very well that most Arabs here have not so much as seen it, much less eaten it?

To all such questions Dr. Brown gave answers, sometimes by analogies, sometimes by demonstrations, sometimes by just a simple appeal to wait and see before passing judgment. His most convincing answer, however, was the first yield of lettuce, carrots, cauliflower and a new strain of tomatoes growing from the experimental acre, crops planned by Dr. Brown right down to the last cut of the hoe. It was convincing because the experiment was clearly a success. From that one acre Ahmad 'Abd Allah made more profit than he did on the whole nine acres which he planted and managed himself. Impressed, Ahmad 'Abd Allah turned the remaining nine acres over to Dr. Brown forthwith to be farmed as the agronomist suggested.

Ahmad's experience was by no means rare. In Qatif, an area north of Dhahran, Muhammad Taqi, whose family owned large tracts of land on Tarut Island, offered to try some of the new methods. His father, however, refused to allow the use of insecticides, preferring to place his faith in nature. One season's comparison convinced him that it might be wiser to protect his crops himself, and before he died several years ago he had become one of the most progressive farmers in the area.

But the fieldwork was only a beginning. However successful they may be in the actual grbwing of crops, farmers cannot expand and improve their methods, their lands and their returns without markets. So it was with Ahmad 'Abd Allah and his fellow "cooperators," as Aramco calls its agricultural collaborators. Nothing caused greater misgivings among them than the lack of local markets for many of the crops they had been urged to plant. Dr. Brown had encouraged the production of vegetables completely alien to Saudi Arabian experience, promising that Aramco would buy a large portion of their output. But as the supply of cabbage, cauliflower, turnips, beets, lettuce and carrots began to outstrip Aramco requirements, the farmers converged on their adviser and gently suggested that perhaps it was a mistake to continue.

"Keep planting," was Grover Brown's reply and with a display of faith they did. The result was a sufficient surplus of products to enable the farmers to offer them to the local market at reasonable prices.

"It was a calculated risk," Dr. Brown explained later, "but more calculated than risky. You see, when many semi-nomads moved into settled areas after oil production began in earnest, one of the first things to change was their diets. Formerly they had depended on traditional sources of protein and carbohydrates—dates, for example, and livestock—but by 1954, the market was ripe for a transition to canned goods, fresh fruits and vegetables, particularly since home refrigeration had ceased to be a novelty. So it was really a matter of getting enough fresh produce to whet the public's appetite for new foods."

There was much more to it than that, of course. Exposing a product to the public is rarely of any use if the public doesn't know what it's for. "Take cauliflower or head lettuce," Dr. Brown said. "They were such strange foods here that at first people around Hofuf were naturally reluctant to spend good money just to try them. But we were prepared for that. Dietitians from Aramco's medical department organized classes at which Saudi housewives learned how to prepare each new vegetable in a variety of ways. In no time at all the demand for the new foods boosted the prices. Where the original price was about $2.30 a basket for cauliflower, for example, today's price is between $10 and $12 a basket, a very profitable level for the farmers. I might add that today less than 15 per cent of their production is sold to Aramco."

To broaden his sphere of operations to include more cooperators—there are now 46—Dr. Brown found that the man in charge of technical assistance needed some assistance himself and so began the development of an all-Arab staff of agricultural specialists. First to come were Sami Labban, in 1956, and Raja Jeha, in 1957, both graduates of the College of Agriculture at the American University of Beirut; and Faysal Ruwayha, a Saudi graduate of Virginia Polytechnical Institute and Cornell University. On the staff today are also four Saudi Arabs who studied at the American University in Beirut under a special one-year agricultural program. Those men range from Qatif, north of Dhahran, to Hofuf, 75 miles to the south, advising any farmer who requests help (but only those who ask for it) on all phases of agriculture.

Meanwhile Ahmad 'Abd Allah and Dr. Brown had joined forces again, this time to try poultry raising. Maintaining his reputation as eastern Arabia's number one agricultural innovator, Ahmad 'Abd Allah became one of the first farmers to experiment in commercial poultry production. He needed little urging, for the market was wide open and the competition almost nil. Aramco again provided all technical services, designing feeders and other equipment to be made from available materials, selecting the proper breed—White Leghorns—for local conditions, even writing the order and facilitating Ahmad 'Abd Allah's transfer of credit. Soon, 2,000 day-old chicks came winging into Dhahran by plane from the Netherlands.

During the next two months Ahmad 'Abd Allah spent practically every waking hour with his chirping charges, superintending their feeding from an improvised mixture of cracked wheat, cracked corn, ground fish, dried alfalfa and dried eggs, on which they thrived. In his concern for the chicks Ahmad 'Abd Allah even brought a brood hen into the chicken house to provide a proper family atmosphere. The hen was rudely ejected the next day by the agricultural adviser, who emphasized that chicks grow not on mother love, but on proper feed, which they were getting in abundance.

Within three months every chicken was sold to neighboring farmers, some as pets, since white chickens were then a novelty, and Ahmad 'Abd Allah's initial investment of about 24 cents for each chick delivered plus about 80 cents to feed and keep it returned about $2.30, a profit of more than 100 per cent. The chicken boom was on and the cost of eggs began to drop. Today the production of eggs in Qatif and Hofuf totals more than 200,000 eggs a day. Of that output Aramco buys 65 per cent, the rest going to the local market.

There is little doubt that such graphic demonstrations had a telling impact upon farming in the Eastern Province. But there were much bigger problems facing the region too. One had to do with what is the single most important problem in agriculture the world over: water.

Contrary to what is generally thought about the Arabian Peninsula—where much of its 1,000,000 square miles is arid desert—the problem in the desert areas under cultivation is not always lack of water but sometimes an excess of water. This apparent contradiction has its origins in the geology of the region.

The rainfall which waters the plateau of the Najd in central Arabia ranges from zero to five inches annually, a meager supply if compared with the average of 35 inches in central Texas. But instead of coming down in gentle soaking showers which would give a limited productivity to the area, more often than not it pours down in a few heavy torrents, spawning flash floods—which sometimes drown unlucky shepherds in what, a few minutes previously, were bone dry canyons. Within a few hours the surface of the desert is as dry and dusty as before, the water having evaporated or seeped into the earth. Most of the rainfall from this huge plateau seeps down to impermeable strata far below the surface and then oozes downward and eastward through layers of spongy rock toward the Arabian Gulf at an almost imperceptible rate—estimated as one foot a year. In the Qatif-Hofuf area which is close to sea level the layers of spongy rock containing great quantities of water are closer to the surface, so close that farmers were often able to dig wells by hand down into the upper layer.

In its slow underground passage through the rock strata, however, the water absorbs large quantities of salts—mostly sodium and calcium—which in excess can seriously damage crops. Over the years the farmers, using low-cost labor, had dug and maintained open drainage ditches which were sufficient to control the slight excess water and drain off the harmful salts. Then came introduction of drilling rigs that could drive deep into the lower strata where lay an abundance of water under high pressure. Farmers, first happy as this plentiful supply of water gushed to the surface, were later dismayed as it became apparent that the old drainage ditches could not carry off the surplus. As the excess water accumulated, the water table underground began to rise, reaching, in some areas, the roots of the plants and even rising above the surface. There the sun evaporated much of the water, leaving a high concentration of salts behind. This continuing process eventually transformed much of the irrigated land into a stagnating salt water marsh in which almost no commercially valuable plant life could grow.

To Grover Brown all this was familiar. Identical situations exist in many parts of the world, including the enormous valley of the Indus River in Pakistan and India and a surprisingly large portion of the arid lands in the southwest regions of the United States. Around Qatif, however, the problem was magnified by disturbing factors which demanded immediate attention. The process of overwatering, in most places a gradual development, had taken place very swiftly in Qatif, where, in a relatively small area, some 300 uncapped artesian wells, six to eight inches in diameter, were spewing out millions of gallons of water. As a direct result, the food supply from the water-logged farms fell drastically, and with it the quality of what little food could be harvested. Prices shot up, laborers left the land to seek work elsewhere, and the situation steadily worsened.

From a strictly theoretical point of view, the irrigation and drainage of the Qatif region were fairly routine matters. Irrigation ditches already constructed on the farms would continue to supply water to the fields, but carefully graded, cup-shaped drainage ditches, approximately six feet deep, and four feet wide at the bottom with sides gradually sloping upward to shoulders about 25-30 feet apart, would collect the excess after it had passed through the upper layers of earth, and carry it—and its salts—to the Arabian Gulf nearby. The crux of the system was, of course, the difference between the level of the shallow irrigation ditches and the deeper drainage ditches, which permitted the water to seep gradually from one to the other, washing away the plant-searing salts as it went.

By a network of main drainage ditches some 40 miles long, and other shallower ditches feeding into them, Dr. Brown hoped, the entire Qatif area could be adequately drained. He anticipated lowering the water table to at least four feet below the surface, well below the root system of most plants.

The only real technical problem was to determine whether the 25-foot drop from the ground level at Qatif to the sea three miles away was enough to keep the water flowing seaward (as it turned out, it was). Then came the task of translating the planning, which was done entirely by Aramco, into action which would be supported by the central and provincial administrations, as well as by the individual farmers through whose land the drainage system had to pass. Coordinated action on this scale is rarely easy, but the Saudi Arab Government working with Aramco planners, farmers and landowners broke ground for the project in 1960 and finished on schedule early this year. Construction of the whole drainage complex was paid for by the Saudi Arab Government. The government also pays for maintenance.

So successful did the Qatif drainage project prove to be that the Hofuf area, three times as large and with many of the same problems, also asked for assistance. The government has confidently moved ahead, on the basis of experience accumulated at Qatif, and recently let contracts with a German firm to construct canals over a 40,000-acre area in Hofuf.

Grover Brown, like other Aramco employes, takes a two-month vacation in the United States every other year. Though he enjoys his work tremendously, the chance to renew old friendships and to have a change of scene from the desert sands comes as a welcome relief to him. But not to everybody. One cooperator from the Hofuf area, hearing that Dr. Brown was soon to go on home leave, collared an Aramco official and argued that Dr. Brown could not possibly be spared that long.

"Well, then, how long?" was the rejoinder.

The farmer thought for a moment. "Two weeks?" he suggested, hopefully.

Had he been there, Dr. Brown would have demurred. "I'm anything but indispensable," he laughs. "Everything that's happening here now would come in time whether we were here or not. I'm a catalyst. I build fires under people, but they do the work.

"Take the Wadi Sahba project in Haradh. Aramco will put about $400,000 into this scheme in planning and feasibility studies, but the actual execution of the project—which will open to cultivation a large inland area now completely barren—will cost $13 million and be done entirely by the Saudi Arab Government. We're doing proportionately less each year as more trained Saudis are able to shoulder the burden of development. The measure of my success is how quick I beat myself out of a job."

Such progress does not mean that all or even most of the obstacles facing Saudi Arabian agriculture have been overcome. The challenges ahead are still enormous and even the most progressive farmers still have major hurdles to overcome.

But a start has been made and when Grover Brown and Ahmad 'Abd Allah al-'Arfaj eventually go their separate ways they are unlikely to forget the ten years they labored together to make the desert green. If the face of the land is changed less than they would like, fields blooming in areas formerly barren give rise to hopes for a fruitful future. For, as the Arab proverb says, "The beginning of rain is but a single drop."

Daniel da Cruz, a free lance writer, has lived in the Middle East for 10 years serving in varied diplomatic, educational, journalistic and commercial capacities. He is the author of Men Who Made America, a textbook for foreign students in the United States.

This article appeared on pages 24-29 of the July/August 1964 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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