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Letters from Jordan – On Consultation at Jordan’s Largest Farm, and Contemplating Transition

Preamble: From my recent trip to Jordan, I shared with you all the news, with loads of pictures, about the International Permaculture Conference (IPC) that will be held there in September 2011. I also slipped over the border to take a quick peek at Murad Alkufash’s work in the West Bank, and took video of the Jawaseri school garden project. In my bid to multitask, I also had opportunity to accompany Geoff Lawton on a consultation in the Wadi Rum district in the south of the country, where we combined the consultation with our investigations for a campsite for the IPC (photos of the latter can be seen via the first link above).

The consultation on its own, however, is deserving of a post. It was highly interesting for many reasons that I shall outline here.

Permaculture designer/teacher, Geoff Lawton, looks at water pumped from
an aquifer under Jordan’s famous Wadi Rum desert region.
All photographs © copyright Craig Mackintosh


The Wadi Rum desert in the south of Jordan happens to be the site of Jordan’s largest mixed farm – Rum Farm. It might, for good reason, seem odd that this beautiful but largely abiotic location would host a large scale farm, let alone Jordan’s largest, but it begins to make sense when you learn that under the Wadi Rum desert (and stretching under the border mountains and well into Saudi Arabia) is a large aquifer. In fact, much of this desert nation’s water supply is dependent on this single water source.

Captured from a bus window, while crossing the no-man’s land between
Jordan and Israel/Palestine, the once-mighty Jordan river is today just
a murky trickle (see bottom centre of image) that wouldn’t
flow at all today if it wasn’t for the pollution poured into it….

In what is now potentially the most water starved nation on the planet, to say this aquifer is a precious resource is like saying an atomic bomb is a ‘little noisy’. It’s a major understatement. This water is blue gold, and it’s being pumped at a furious pace.

As most of our readers will know, using reductionist, industrial agricultural ‘systems’, as opposed to intelligent, bio-diverse permaculture design symbioses, means huge amounts of water gets polluted and wasted. Soils with poor soil structure lack the spongy characteristic that holds and filters the water they receive. Here in the desert, where evaporation is many times greater than precipitation, the wastage is multiplied manifold. Turned and churned soils hasten that evaporation process, and plantings of monocrop species without taller support species to provide shade from sun and shelter from drying winds do likewise. Salinity increases, and food production becomes a finite endeavour based on costly and finite artificial inputs.

The Wadi Rum desert

Running large scale monocrop farming anywhere should be seen as madness. Here it’s insane. Yet, a large part of Jordan’s food supply is produced at this farm – before being trucked north hundreds of kilometres through the desert to the capital of Amman and other centres in refrigerated trucks.

Head south across the border, into Saudi Arabia, and the situation is the same.

Centre pivot farming in Saudi Arabia

The precariousness of this situation is not completely lost on Jordanians, however, and thus Geoff finds himself being invited to consult on transition possibilities.

We meet in Amman to talk with Rum Farm and Astra Farm managers.
From left: Sijal Majali (Rum Farm Managing Director), Sirin Al Masri
(daughter of Mr. Sabih Taher Darwish Al-Masri) and Kamil Sadeddin
(Astra Farm Managing Director, Saudi Arabia).

Transitioning one of the world’s largest mix farms – Astra Farm, Saudi Arabia

Rum Farm is owned by Astra Farms, who have what is possibly one of the largest mixed farms in the world, in the Tabuk region in the north of Saudi Arabia. To give you an idea of scale, they have 3,000 workers, producing 10,000 tons of grapes per year, 22 million quail per year, and the list goes on with dozens of other crops.

Saudi Arabia is under intense agricultural pressure. Although similar can be said about many regions in the world, I would describe the Middle East, in particular, as being a powder keg of unrest, just waiting to blow. As we head deeper into a perpetual recession, where oil revenues will become volatile and ultimately dry up along with Saudi’s remaining reserves, it will become increasingly expensive to import food. Yet Saudi Arabia recently announced that it would phase out all domestic wheat production in favour of importing, and has been buying up land in other countries in an attempt to ease a growing water crisis. Reducing water and energy consumption while maintaining, no, increasing, food production is of paramount concern and will be the nation’s ultimate challenge.

The good news is that Kamil Sadeddin, Managing Director of Astra Farms, told us that since a 2004 consultation with Geoff they have been progressively transitioning their 3,200 hectare farm to organic production. Today, Kamil says, a full 25% of Astra Farms is chemical free – and they’re producing over 700 tons of compost per month!

Now eyes are on Jordan to begin a similar transition.

Making a start – Rum Farm, Jordan

An almost 180 degree view of just a portion of Rum Farm’s 2000 hectares of
mixed crops. Click picture for larger view.

Astra Farm’s little brother is mere kilometres from the Wadi Rum tourist township – where thousands flock for tours of some of the most beautiful desert landscapes in the world.

Rum’s Managing Director, Sijal Majali, took Geoff and I on a tour of the property. After climbing into his air-conditioned Toyota Landcruiser, and transfering his Glock from his shoulder harness to the glove box for even greater comfort, he settled down to tell us more about the farm as we drove across some of its 2,000 hectare expanse.

Most of the workers are Egyptian, some Syrian, he said, as we passed dozens of labourers working in dusty, shadeless conditions. He went on to explain that 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…. Some of these crops are entirely for export (like grapes), and some almost entirely for domestic consumption (like potatoes).

The farm even has its own internal, armed police station – to maintain order amongst the migrant worker community.


Cool storage and packing facilities

As we drove my thoughts wandered to the future – projecting how Jordan would fare if this aquifer were to dry up, or if the economy collapsed over massive fuel price hikes. (Jordan doesn’t have its own oil reserves.) These large scale, centralised farms – based on massive inputs and mass-transit – would falter, with ominous consequences for the nation’s burgeoning population.

I considered how the Permaculture ideal is small scale, family managed, biodiverse land holdings – not big farms like this. And I thought about, as I often do, the need to move society towards such an ideal, to get more people onto the land. I thought about land redistribution and the corresponding need to educate those people in sustainable, permaculture systems.


Sitting in this big, flashy Landcruiser – complete with water bottles chilling in the built-in refrigerator between the seats – I had to ask myself "where does consulting for such a behemoth farm fit into this picture?"

But, I already knew the answer.

After watching contemporary business-as-usual attitudes to critical, converging problems – seeing the complacent, ponderous and reactive nature of governments and the aggressive, resource-consuming, true-cost-externalising, extractive behaviour of industry – I knew that the work that needs to be done will never happen in time. Thus finding methods to transition large systems like this is not only essential to maintaining some order, and, ultimately, peace, but it can also serve as an excellent opportunity to get permaculture concepts onto board room tables, onto fields, and into the minds of farm managers and labourers. As resources diminish and climate change exacerbates stress on our arable land base, regardless of what industrial or political shifts occur it is essential we get more agricultural workers familiarised with permaculture systems, and how to replicate them.

Showcasing these systems at some of the world’s largest agricultural sites has to be a good thing.

The consultation

Geoff talks to Sijal Majali (Rum Farm Managing Director), standing on
the five hectare section that permaculture will transform.

Geoff was given five initial hectares to design. It will be a pioneer section prior to subsequent, larger transitions on the farm. During the consultation process, I have to say I was impressed with Geoff’s boldness. Rather than compromise and water down permaculture principles through an assumption these agribusinessmen would go at it only half-heartedly, Geoff expected much, and got it.

As Geoff explained his plans, Sijal began to emanate palpable excitement.

Geoff described a biodiverse plant procession starting with leguminous and other support species, interspersed with crop sections, to create a biodiverse system of alternating crop/tree corridors – with a trellised swale running through each food forest section. He spoke of the necessary orientation of the system so the trees and bushes will protect crops from the harsh prevailing winds and afternoon sun. He described how the support species will ultimately give way to a succession of protective and productive food forest bushes and trees, which will themselves be crowned with a date palm overstory.

Alternating food forest/crop corridor profile
The crop is sheltered from sun and prevailing wind

Such a design as this allows natural soil creation processes to blossom. Leaf litter from the food forest and crop residues can combine to create humus rich soils – which in turn gives health and vitality to plants, making them less attractive to ‘pests’, and enabling the soil to hold much higher moisture levels. The plant biodiversity allows beneficial workers (insects) to take up residence and keep any of their kind from becoming ‘pests‘. Their human counterpart, the farm labourers, will also benefit from a much improved and shaded environment.

A grid of swales will be fed from a tree-shaded pond (deep and narrow to reduce evaporation) that is fed from the aquifer. This pond will overflow into the swales and can be diverted through simple gates. The swale ends will have a swivel flush pipe so swales can be drained during flood events, or to pass water on to the next section.

Drip lines for initial food forest establishment and for ongoing maintenance of the crop rows will be supplied from computer controlled solar-powered, batteryless pumps.

Aerial view of food forest section
A river trellised swale runs through it…

Salad and other annuals and perennials can be positioned in the crop sections according to their respective shade needs and sun tolerance – with respect to the sun’s aspect over the fields.

Detail of the three lines of food forest trees on each side of swales

Beginning with a high proportion of ‘non productive’ support species, soil, water and humidity conditions will arise to nurse food crops into vitality – allowing these to establish and grow until the proportion of non-food plants can shrink to virtually nil.

Rum Farm is now beginning initial stages of implementation – planning earthworks according to Geoff’s procedure manual. In the meantime, crop residues will no longer get burned. All green matter and shreddable carbonaceous material will be composted.

My primary purpose for writing this post is to encourage permaculturists everywhere to be bold and achieve much. The world needs you like never before. Fill farmers with an holistic vision and they’ll be unstoppable. With enough permaculturists out there consulting like this, we could see the kind of ecological magic that can turn sand into food transition us into a healthier, more stable future.

A different future awaits?

Further Reading:

Please see update on this consultancy here!: Desert Food Forest and Organic Commercial Production in Three Years – Update on Wadi Rum Consultancy


  1. wow that is amazing. permaculture is really spreading! i cant believe it. right on time like in some kind of movie

  2. Geoff, Craig,

    This is a great post, I am glad to see that you guys are reporting on consultancies like this. Really inspiring stuff!


  3. Awesome!
    Please keep us informed about the updates of this project (though it’ll take years and more years :) )
    From the post I guess the farm is already using the latest modern technology, would it be able to record the changes also? I mean something like what Willie Smits has done, like measure the humidity, cloudy days, average temperature on the site, etc?
    I believe those kind of measurements will be great addition to this very hopeful project.

  4. What an inspiring post.

    We’re in the Arizona high desert and we started with little swales after watching Greening the Desert last spring. We’re still hoping to get some monsoon rain (we’re hauling water) to fill up our swales.

    Thanks for those great pictures and helpful drawings!

  5. Awesome and inspiring! If this can happen on a large scale in a country with as dire a water situation as Jordan, it can happen everywhere. Please keep up the great documentation so this beautiful story can spread.

  6. I am in Arizona and I am so pleased with this. The thought has been progressing in my mind that our little valley, Golden Valley, should begin planting a food forest in the washes. Eventually it will retain water that runs off and we will have a good supply of local food. I want to tell you about a wonderful legume tree we have here, the palo verde. Much is said about the Mesquite tree which produces edible pods but few people realize that the palo verde tree can be such a great food source. I also love the leaf litter that is a bit like pine needles. When the beans are green ripe, I steam them in the shell then pop them out and they are like fresh soy beans, in looks, taste and protein. Once the beans are dry and dropping to the ground I shell them, grind and sift them for flour. They make foods taste like buckwheat and it is yummy and a great source of protein. They are beautiful desert legume trees. They might be considered in these plantings.

    I am so happy that permaculture is progressing on a larger scale. We need to preserve our land and water. Anna

  7. Thanks Craig. Please keep documenting the consultation process, it’s excellent learning material for us, and inspiring as well.

  8. Nice work as always….

    Would be interested to see the practicality of such a layout where swales (being on contour) are naturally not parallel and therefore the interrow vegie alleys etc will be problematic (as there will a lot of ‘stubb rows’) for the movement of cultivation, planting and harvesting machinery, which may not be a consideration on a 5ha pilot project but then on the scale up (that we of course hope occurs!) then it will become a real pain.

    This is where the Keyline geometry comes in of course as following completion of a what would probably be a 100-200mm topo survey (with a total station) the designers would then orient the design such that any rows where mechanical access is conducted will have the rows end in headlands not awkwardly ending up banging into unparallel lines of trees.

    This is why many farmers across the world who have put in contour banks tear them out as though they served a purpose in time for soil and water conversation but not at all for machinery access. Keyline is a superior broadscale geometry to follow in my opinion as it overcomes this issue and provides us with the best of both worlds.

    Of course the most important strategy in any situation is keeping ‘100% groundcover, preferably living and perennial, 100% of the time’ such that any rainwater infiltrates where it falls increasing the water and mineral cycles across the board with the whole land surface becoming a swale in effect. The work of Holistic Management practitioners across the world highlights this and in the foothills off of the floodplains of this site, along with the hills themselves, HM Planned Grazing would work to reducing the source of the highly damaging flood waters that cause such damage along with recharging the aquifers across the whole site not after the ‘horse has bolted’…

    I am gladdened by Geoff’s participation in the upcoming conference in the middle east in which he and Allan Savory are keynotes such that the two great methodologies of Permaculture and Holistic Management can come together in yet another forum.

    Thanks and congratulations,

    All the best,


  9. The very flat landscape profiles of many deserts used for broad acre production allows for swale depth adjustment and then parallel swale lines within the appropriate area of required shelter. In this way the restriction of length also restricts the increment size for crop area repetition which is so important and necessary in such extreme environments. To achieve a sustainable stable result using mostly productive crops and mostly productive trees we need to be using smaller crop fields surrounded by these trees, especially in the effect of wind shelter and wind born nutrient harvest, reduction of evaporation, organic matter, and addition of condensation. So there is a limit to length of a sustainable crop field even one that is of appropriate width. Machinery will have to be adapted to landscape because landscape will not adapt to machinery. In the same way Allan Savory has adapted the pattern observed of the movement of natural herds of animals on dry lands being tight packed grazing off areas quickly to domestic animal grazing patterns and it is beneficial to the environment of dry lands. Observations of the patterns and size ratios of the natural banded vegetation patterns in drylands which have been studied since the 1950’s with aerial photography is useful in designing dry land crop fields and their surrounding tree belts mostly on contour for a permanent and sustainable productive landscape design.

    Banded Vegetation Patterning in Arid and Semiarid Environments, Ecological Processes and Consequences for Management, Ecological Studies 149, edited by David J, Tongway, Christian Valentin, Josiane Seghieri

  10. G’day,

    Thanks for the reply Geoff…it will be interesting indeed to see how you make this all eventuate especially around the statement that the ‘Machinery will have to be adapted to landscape because landscape will not adapt to machinery’…reminds me of our good mate and HM mentor Kirk Gadzia saying: ‘Is the reason why we have erosion or poor water cycles because we don’t have enough swales?’ (Just the same as ‘Is the reason we have weeds because we don’t have enough poison?).

    At a mechanical level that also conjures up thoughts of amazingly articulated couplings to enable turning in tight spacings without churning up the soil surface in headlands along with this farm developing its own machinery manufacturing plant. That of course is nothing new as farmers have long built or adapted machinery out of various necessities that have otherwise confounded them along the way, with these then becoming mass marketed.

    My comments around layout configurations were drawn from my own long experience in designing then developing and managing larger scale integrated systems where we are attempting to fill places with as many production opportunities as pragmatically possible and did this originally using contours (up till about 1994) and were forced by the sheer access difficulties to crack a new code. That code was ultimately created by my (then) surveyor (Konrad Ensor) and I and came from Keyline.

    Though we applied the Keyline geometry in a way that Yeomans had never before devised (ie applying Keyline to row cropping of integrated broadscale tree/vegetable/cropping polycultures), we were using this geometry to maintain equidistant rows of vegetation in row crop configurations and do so with the same spatial density and access provisions of more traditional rectilinear layouts. This gives us the control of water flows as occurs with contouring but overcomes the layout issues and lack of spatial density with using a contour-based arrangement.

    Notwithstanding any smaller crop fields (what 50m x 50m or 25m x 25m ‘cells’ within the ‘bands’ of ‘polyforest’) will have commercial production imperatives imposed that will demand effective access for the various operations especially when scaled up.

    Thanks for the reference and I being a broadacre designer have long noticed these natural patterns myself over our part of the world (SE Australia), in other environments along with more recently in places such as Extramadura where the famed Dehesa agroecologies have long been in existence. Certainly the natural shaping of these bands are close to contour and it is part of our job as designers to be inspired by this but take this patterning so much further: that is the art of applying Permaculture ethics and principles, along with adapting a range of other aligned methodologies to designing the landscapes we come to work on.

    Good luck with the project and I for one will really be looking forward to seeing the design treatments that you and your team come up with….

    All the best,


  11. The people of Rum want Sabieh Masri and his daughter Sirin out of their land, huge protests are going on as we speak… the gov gave them the land 25 years ago for peanuts and they are leasing some of it for third parties for millions “Jordanian news media reported” … They are planting tomatoes and watermelon, using the scarce water of the area while the indigenous people there have hardly any water or food. They claim that they are supporting the community but have not shown any concrete facts supporting their claims.

    this is what i call steeling in broad daylight.

  12. thanks for that info about whats happening on the ground with the local people..very enlightening..I cant see a big farming group like that doing anything ethical..


  14. Hello
    Can you tell me about Centre pivot farming in Saudi Arabia?
    I saw that at the your picture and I am very interest to know about it.

  15. If the STOP comments are legitimate then it makes the best case for managing holistically towards your holistic context that I have seen in recent years on a public forum. In holistic management we teach that when creating your context all people who have the power to veto your decisions need to be part of the group who create the context, so that what you are doing is socially, economically and environmentally sound both short and long term. This is why any consultancy with a Savory Institute accredited consultant always starts here. While it might seem like time wastage to some it is designed to prevent these type of human issues in the future. If the entire community had supported this farm and were all making decisions to fix the water cycle, nutrient cycle, carbon cycle, and were making their decisions based on how they wanted their lives to be i.e. their quality of life, then these types of anger based reactions would not be occurring and stopping the regeneration of the land, while employing people and being profitable. The reason the anger would not be there is that the people would be working to achieve their own holistic contexts goals.

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