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February 16, 2010

Group pioneers urban organic vegetable gardening in Morocco

by Erik German

On a 50-acre farmstead outside the country’s capital, the scene did little to evoke agriculture on the cutting edge: Two lanky men in mud boots labored across a loamy field.

Slowly and by hand, they dropped seeds into rows of furrowed dirt. Behind them, a third man guided a horse-drawn harrow that looked as old as farming itself, covering each kernel with a layer of coffee-brown earth.

As this trio of laborers planted winter peas, they were practicing a form of agriculture that counts as innovative even in Europe or the United States. The operation is completely organic and its owner, Mustapha Belhacha, 31, has struck a deal with a group of urban families to buy his produce half a year before it comes out of the ground.

“We take the money in advance, with checks, in a way that’s truly new,” Belhacha said. “This system is more consistent, it gives us time to think about what we need to plant, what the customers want.”

Belhacha has joined what may be Morocco’s first association dedicated to Community-Supported Agriculture, or CSA. The group’s founders aim to change the way farming is done in this North African nation.

The surging popularity of organic food in the United States and Europe has been matched by a steady rise in organic farming in the developing world. The amount of land under organic cultivation worldwide has more than doubled since 2000, according to the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, a non-profit trade group based in Bonn, Germany. According to the group’s latest survey, more than one third of the world’s 79 million acres or organic farmland are in Latin America, Asia or Africa.

Operations like Belhacha’s — in which small, organic farmers contract with local customers to deliver weekly baskets of in-season produce — make up a still-smaller subset of this number. But experts on this kind of localized, personalized farming say the model is well-suited to take off in countries where agriculture has not yet been completely overtaken by heavy industry.

“I think CSA has tremendous potential in the developing world,” said Steven McFadden, author of “Farms of Tomorrow,” and several other books on community-supported agriculture. “It doesn’t necessarily require the kinds of inputs that industrial agriculture relies on.”

The forerunners to the modern CSA model first appeared in Japan and Switzerland during the 1960s and 1970s. The movement then spread to America in the mid 1980s, starting with just two farms in rural New Hampshire and Massachusetts and growing to include more than 12,000 operations today, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department.

Now similar partnerships between consumers and growers are taking root on the temperate, cactus-lined farms of Morocco.

The founders of Belhacha’s CSA group, called Sala Almoustaqbal, began with little more than enthusiasm, a garden and a friend’s garage. Touriya Atarhouch was a biologist by profession but three years ago she decided to indulge and expand her passion for gardening. She and her husband, Najib Bendahman, with the support of several friends hungry for organic produce, started their own farm and convinced two other growers to retool their operations.

In exchange for doing so, the farmers were promised a steady salary of about $1,200 each month.

“Plenty of farmers came to us at first, saying this is super interesting, 10,000 dirhams a month is good. But what does that entail? It entails working every day, from morning to night, and all year long,” Atarhouch said. “It’s a continuous, diversified production. You’re always learning. There are always problems, so it’s not easy. That’s why we don’t have that many new farmers joining the project.”

They have graduated from handing out produce in a co-founder’s garage to doing so at an upscale school in Rabat, Morocco’s capital city.

She estimates the 100 customers in their network pay about 20 percent more for their vegetables than they would at neighborhood markets. As a result, the group’s clientele — about half of whom are foreigners, half Moroccan — tend to be educated and affluent. As the program grows, Atarhouch said she hopes to be able to offer weekly vegetable packages priced within reach of working-class Moroccans.

“Honestly we cannot help both growers and consumers at this point,” she said. “There’s less support converting to organic in Morocco than there is the U.S. and France. We have to take care of ourselves. So that means for the moment, we can only help the growers.”

Besides the steady pay, the project’s farmers cite other benefits of going organic. “Chemical fertilizers are expensive,” said Radouane Elkhallouki, who runs a farm a few miles south of Belhacha’s. “We cut costs by using plant and animal waste — which also help the land stay productive.”

The slightly higher cost hasn’t seemed to diminish enthusiasm for the project’s produce in Rabat. The waiting list to join the group is 100 families long, with friends of departing expats jostling for rare open spots.

“I have a little boy and it’s much better to give him organic than chemical vegetables,” said Saloua Mnissar, 37, who joined the group six months ago. But what does she think is the biggest advantage of organic produce?

“The taste,” she said, “the taste.”

Global Post

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