Sed El Masjoune, Province d'El Kalaa des Sraghna, Morocco - It's not the desert, but close. Dry, flat, and virtually barren, the land around Hassan Ztouti's small family farm about an hour north of bustling Marrakech is rugged terrain. Even in good years -- which the country's drought-stricken farmers have not seen for awhile -- rainfall averages a few centimeters a year. That's enough to feed checkered patches of shrubs and grasses. But the fallow fields can't sustain crops like fig and olive trees, wheat, and barley that Morocco's small farmholders harvest in more fertile areas of the Atlas mountain range.
"They see the greener fields in these saltlands and they want the 'know-how'."
- Dr. Abdel Ilah Ambri
So why are Mr. Ztouti's fields turning into greener pastures? He's practicing a new approach to farming, one that soil scientists and land managers call "biosaline agriculture" whose progress is being driven in key ways by the tools of nuclear science and technology. Over the past three years, Mr. Ztouti's farm has become a demonstration site for Morocco's plans to grow plants in saline soils. The saltlands collectively add up to hundreds of thousands of hectares throughout the country - around Sed El Masjoune alone they exceed 10,000 hectares. The soils contain too much salt for the survival or healthy growth of most crops - but not all.
On plots of several hectares irrigated with brackish water from a nearby well, Mr. Ztouti is cultivating various plants, including eucalyptus and acacia trees, a mustard-type plant called rapeseed, olive trees, and the forage bush artiplex that can help feed pack animals and livestock.
As his plants grow, so does the interest of fellow farmers in following his lead. Yet, for the most part, they lack the knowledge and support to reclaim the land around them.
"This is new to them," says Dr. Abdel Ilah Ambri, a soil scientist who heads the Department of Environmental Physics at Morocco's National Institute of Agronomic Research (INRA) supporting Mr. Ztouti's work. "And they are interested to learn more about it. They see the greener fields in these saltlands and they want the 'know-how'."
Among the curious are old and new generations of farmers in Sed El Masjoune. About two dozen have gathered today for a sun-sheltered briefing inside a spacious tent set up a stone's throw from the well near Mr. Ztouti's fields. The colourful tapestry flaps, display boards flip, and papers flutter in stiff spring winds, as a circle of men sipping tea learn about the new way of farming and the government's support for it. Dr. Ambri, chief engineer Lahcen Belbahri, who heads the Provincial Agriculture Directorate at El Kalaa des Sraghna, and other local representatives explain the aims and how farmers can get involved. A few take written notes, most rely on pictures, charts, and memory - a contrast illustrating the practical challenges of "show-and-tell" technology transfer in this poorly literate and traditional farming community.
For thirty-year-old Abderrahman Basri and sixty-year-old Abdennebi Salah, the chance of a new well like the one the government tapped for Mr. Ztouti piques their interest. Far too little rain has fallen over the past 10 years, Mr. Salah says, shrinking harvests of melon, alfalfa, and cereal grains that most farmers try to grow. Access to water, even brackish water, may not support those crops. But maybe the wells can help farmers stop waiting for rain and start turning abandoned fields into pastures.
"Water and the feeding of animals are the main things on farmers' minds here," says Mr. Abdelsadek El Mahir, the local representative of the provincial agricultural union. "Most of the union's meetings and emergency sessions every year focus on those issues, plus animal and plant diseases. If more land could be developed for grazing, it would be a big step in the right direction."