Going hazel

Farah El-Akkad, Tuesday 1 Nov 2022

The founder of Hazel Farm Iman Mustafa told Farah El-Akkad about deeper perspectives on agriculture changing lives across generations

Going hazel
Going hazel

 

Be it gardening in your small balcony or planting trees in the field, anything that makes life greener is a huge plus to the environment. It goes without saying that climate change has taken its toll on agriculture for several years now.

According to a report published by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN (FAO) in 2015, “climate change generates considerable uncertainty about future water availability in many regions. It will affect precipitation, runoff and snow/ice melt, with effects on hydrological systems, water quality and water temperature, as well as on groundwater recharge. In many regions of the world, increased water scarcity under climate change will present a major challenge for climate adaptation. Sea-level rise will affect the salinity of surface and groundwater in coastal areas. Climate change is profoundly modifying the conditions under which agricultural activities are conducted. Climate change has both direct and indirect impacts on agricultural production systems. Direct impacts include effects caused by a modification of physical characteristics such as temperature and rainfall distribution on specific agricultural production systems. Indirect effects are those that affect production through changes on other species such as pollinators, pests, disease vectors and invasive species.”

Iman Mustafa and her brother own a plot of land inherited from their father, which has not been very productive in recent years, mainly due to increased water salinity resulting from higher sea levels. Located off the Cairo-Alexandria Desert Road, not far from the coast, many farms in the area are affected by the same issue: both the quantity and quality of crops grown there have dropped considerably.

“My brother spent time trying to help the trees along, paying special attention to crops such as grapes and mangos, but the produce remained little, with many crops at less than half of what they should be,” Mustafa explains. Whether emotionally or physically, it wasn’t an easy decision to uproot trees, “but we had to substitute them with other crops that would survive the land’s conditions better, such as olives and figs.”

In 2020, Mustafa left her office job as a technical adviser to expand her brother’s farm. “I thought I’d start from something that already existed: my brother’s farm.” She spent time observing how things work. Relying on her experience in waste management projects and her masters degree in sustainable development, Mustafa was able to establish a new system for the farm. “It was supposedly a basic system. However it was not as easy as it seemed as we had to apply it for years before we could figure out the farm’s exact expenses and how to cut back on costs. Everything had been on paper, more or less, but with the new, digitised system it has been made much easier to make decisions and find out where loss or gain is coming from.”

Mustafa also sought out consultants to help her manage the crops, “though some of them were incompetent”, and she eventually felt frustrated enough to learn all about farming herself, taking a hands-on approach and learning by trial and error. “I went to other farms and asked to volunteer. Some were not very welcoming, but others were encouraging. I learned a lot from farms such as Sekem, where I volunteered once a week for four months, observing and finding out about crops such as vegetables and herbs.”

Eager to establish an organic farm by introducing a concept new to agriculture in Egypt, though it has been known for centuries around the globe: agroforestry, which involves the interaction of agriculture and trees, putting different crops together for a more productive forest-like ecosystem. “It was easier to do this on land that had never been planted because reclaiming land that is used to chemicals is so hard.” The first attempt of agroforestry in the farm was conducted by a group of Dutch engineers who applied the concept to mango trees. “Planting different crops next to mango trees, such as beans, clover and sunflowers, a mixture of crops not related to each other, because the biodiversity results in stronger trees, better soil and better natural fighting mechanisms not involving chemicals or pesticides.”

After learning all about agriculture and different crops, Mustafa thought something was still missing, mostly the concept of “people”. She wanted to establish a farm that involved people more than anything else. Selling crops was on the list as a long-term goal but her main aim was engaging people. “I had it all visualised: the farm, with its style of wooden decor and ropes, a sitting area in the middle and a play area for kids. In time, after the stage of implementation, the idea started to evolve, involving weekly events that would be both fun and informative for children and adults.”

Agroforestry may not benefit the land right away but in the long term it will make it easier to plant a range of crops organically, departing from the basic commercial model of farms that plant only one crop in each acre or plot. “For example, planting one acre of apricots will attract a specific kind of insect, but if I plant different crops together, apricots with beans, sunflowers, thyme and other fruits, a natural ecosystem will develop, and natural fighting mechanisms will be created including bees and different kinds of insects, just like what happens naturally in forests.” Of course, this requires patience, but in the meantime Mustafa would establish the farm and welcome people in.

The mindset of taking care of land as a form of worship – recognising that nature is God’s gift and feeling safe eating straight out of the earth, not having to wash the produce – is something Mustafa had before establishing Hazel Farm. Launching the farm in November 2021, she introduced the concept of agritainment (agriculture and entertainment), already popular in many countries such as the US, which involves agriculture-related games for both adults and children and ways of engaging people with the environment.

In Hazel Farm, Musatafa established a sunflower maze with different crops and treasure hunt harvests. Visitors are taken on a tour of the farm, explaining how each crop is planted and how long it takes to grow in addition to hands-on activities such as learning crafts like pottery and carpentry. Thyme, lemongrass, lavender, broccoli, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, and sunflowers sit side by side, and in the second phase of the project there will also be chickens and horses.

Last October, Mustafa launched the initiative “Plant for the planet”, which involves children planting their own tree and having their name on it. Other events took place on World Mental Health Day, when a group of teenage students visited the farm to learn about planting different herbs and how this is linked to aromatherapy such as the use of lavender for relaxation and boosting energy. Visitors are usually in groups of 20 or fewer, and will spread out across different parts of the farm, with each event featuring a different theme depending on the occasion.

Hazel also presents a “farm to table experience” for both children and adults. “When they learn how long it takes for a fruit or vegetable to grow and where it is actually coming from and that they can actually just pick it up and eat it, people feel more closely connected to it.” Children also learn that the most nutritious time to consume a fruit or a vegetable is the first hour after picking it. Healthy eating and the environment become more real.

 

AGROFORESTRY: An important tool of “healthy, long-term agricultural production”, agroforestry practises “provide opportunities for landowners - both large and small - to diversify their production systems in order to be more profitable and to mitigate risk.

“Agroforestry is the interaction of agriculture and trees, including the agricultural use of trees. This comprises trees on farms and in agricultural landscapes, farming in forests and along forest margins and tree-crop production, including cocoa, coffee, rubber and oil palm. Interactions between trees and other components of agriculture may be important at a range of scales: in fields (where trees and crops are grown together), on farms (where trees may provide fodder for livestock, fuel, food, shelter or income from products including timber) and landscapes (where agricultural and forest land uses combine in determining the provision of ecosystem service.”

Agroforestry produces trees for timber and other commercial purposes; it also produces a diverse, adequate supply of nutritious foods both to meet global demand and to satisfy the needs of producers themselves. The third need is to ensure the protection of the natural environment so that it continues to provide resources and environmental services to meet the needs of present generations and those to come. Agroforestry involves a wide range of trees that are protected, regenerated, planted or managed in agricultural landscapes as they interact with annual crops, livestock, wildlife and humans.

 

HAZEL: The name Hazel has a double meaning: the greenish brown colour of practically everything in the farm; and the hazelnut tree itself, which is a large shady tree capable of bringing people together. “There is so much symbolism in the hazelnut tree and some of it involves enlightenment, wisdom, inspiration, divination, understanding, creativity, and the divine.”


A version of this article appears in print in the 3 November, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

Search Keywords:
Short link: