“You take one spoon of balsamic oil, one spoon of mustard, a bit of pepper and salt, and three spoons of olive oil. It’s the perfect vinaigrette.” Mounir Makar, a former banker and economist by background, stands amidst hundreds of celery plants, mini spinach, mixed lettuce, and other leafy greens. They are bathing in water, floating in enormous basins well-calculatedly placed within a greenhouse. We, and the other visitors gathered for one of Makar Farms’ famed Saturday lunches, attentively listen as the farm’s leading man explains how this hydroponic system came into existence. The dressing recipe comes for free, Makar’s wit by nature.
“The system is constructed with tools that are available in Egypt, without the help of foreign engineers. So the people working on the farm feel that they are working with something they built themselves,” Mounir Makar explains.
Hydroponic farming leans on a closed system that does not make use of soil, but water. A combination of computer technology and a sensor ensures that this water contains all the mineral nutrients plants need. “The same water is used over and over again. It goes and comes back, goes, and comes back. Around the same reservoir, to the system, and back,” Makar elucidates.
“The end result is that you need less water and less land, because this way plants can be grown on a smaller surface, closer together. The only water that is lost in the reservoir is what the plants have absorbed. When you irrigate more traditionally, even through drip irrigation, you always have waste of water because of evaporation. I’m saving water and getting higher yields at the same time. Hydroponics leads to a production that is automatically 15 to 20 times higher than that of other types of agriculture.”
From Tuba to Endive
Cherry tomatoes, bok choy, edible flowers, brussels sprouts, asparagus, broccoli… When it comes to farming, the Makar family business are true pioneers on the Egyptian market. What is now a 25-acre farm off Sakkara Road run by Mounir Makar, with the help of his daughters Farida and Malak and the farmer families living on the property, was established by Mounir Makar’s great-grandfather in 1880. “He started off with a focus on traditional Egyptian crops. The total amount of farmland became smaller after the agrarian reforms in the 1960s,” Makar recounts. “My father, George Makar, insisted on finding new varieties of crops that would allow him better use of this smaller area as far as return is concerned. He was an agricultural engineer who studied in France, and started to apply what he had seen growing there in summertime, to make it grow in Egypt in wintertime. This is how he introduced, for example, endive.” The observant eye might have remarked that this crisp and bitter vegetable stars in the farm’s logo.
“Did you know endives are of Egyptian origin?” Makar asks. “Endive in French comes from the Medieval Latin endivia, which is in turn from the Egyptian im tuba. Tuba is the coldest month in the Coptic calendar. It was a type of chicory that the Egyptians used to grow during that time of the year, which the Romans took and kept in their cellars. With the humidity and the darkness of these cellars came out this thing that became what is known as witlof in Dutch.” Reintroduced to the Egyptian market by Makar Farms in modern times, the leafed vegetable has now come full circle.
Experimenting runs in the family. Not only was Mounir Makar the one who introduced hydroponic horticulture to the farm, he also likes to play around with cross-pollination, resulting in tomatoes with remarkable colours or bell peppers with amusing shapes. On top of that, Makar Farms develops its own non-GMO seeds.
A significant part of Makar’s produce is, organically, grown in soil. As Egypt does not have an official organic food label, the farm resorts to EU certification. Officially speaking, hydroponic farming is not recognised as an organic practice by this certificate.
“Our organic certification covers all products we grow in soil through traditional farming. In our case, it was extremely important to obtain this certification because we are operating on old, 19th-century farm land along the highly polluted Mariutiyya Canal,” Farida Makar clarifies. “It was therefore imperative that we ascertain the health of the soil and the level of pesticide toxicity in light of our proximity to other farms, even if the futility of such certifications is often questioned. The rest of our products, grown in our greenhouses —using hydroponic technology—would be best described as clean. That is, the certification does not apply to them, but our pesticide-free and clean standards are methodically followed in the greenhouses. There is an ongoing debate about hydroponic systems and the extent to which they can be described as natural or organic, but given the amount of water that such systems save, their importance to a land such as Egypt which is likely to face enormous water shortages in the very near future, must in the very least be taken into account.”
A Butterfly’s Dior
As he walks in between rows and rows of bean and cucumber plants, encouraging us to taste zucchini flowers on the go, Mounir Makar points towards what looks like a white, plastic fly trap with a water-filled bottom.
“If you look closely you can see a red piece of rubber. The smell of female butterfly pheromones has been applied on it. When the male butterflies smell this Christian Dior-like perfume, they think they will have a party! They flutter towards it and drown in the salted water. This way the female’s eggs don’t get fertilized and we don’t get caterpillars. Those are my biggest enemies.” Pesticides, and chemical fertilizers, are out of sight at this farm. Instead, electric zapping traps and insect-repelling plants, and manure from the cattle in the area, are relied upon. Waste is turned into compost.
As we approach a field where herbs such as thyme are grown, a special farm resident pokes his head through the bushes. “I only have one donkey. I’m very proud of him,” Makar grins. “During the Covid crisis, the five-star hotels we work with collapsed. March especially is important for crops, so our donkey would eat a lot of the bok choy that we didn’t manage to sell. At the end of the day he ate so much bok choy that he was speaking Chinese, and so much broccoli that he was speaking Italian.” On a more serious note, the banker-gone-farm-owner shares a remark about a more recent tendency amongst Egyptian consumers with us before we leave. “The younger generations are very concerned about organic and green aspects of food. The older generations were not as much. So there’s hope.”
*Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Tayyib Society team.
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