Greenhouse farming expands in northern Syria

Agricultural crops within plastic greenhouses in rural Idlib - February 10, 2024 (Enab Baladi/Abdul Karim al-Thalji)

Agricultural crops within plastic greenhouses in rural Idlib - February 10, 2024 (Enab Baladi/Abdul Karim al-Thalji)


Idlib – Abdul Karim al-Thalji

After observing several experiments in protected agriculture with plastic greenhouses, the agricultural engineer Ahmad Barakat, a native of Hazarin city in the south of Idlib, was encouraged to start his first experiment in vegetable cultivation, as this type of agriculture has spread noticeably in northwestern Syria.

Barakat began his experiment by planting cucumbers in the plastic greenhouse he had prepared in the Ma’arrat Misrin area where he was displaced to several years ago, in addition to his work in cultivating fruit tree seedlings such as fig, grape, olive, and citrus. He rented a piece of land, built the greenhouse, and equipped it with a drip irrigation system.

Barakat told Enab Baladi that he hopes the plastic greenhouse will yield good returns in light of the rising prices of all materials and commodities in the region.

The engineer is trying to expand his work in cultivating seedlings, considering that this type of agriculture helps people achieve self-sufficiency in vegetables, which is better than importing from abroad.

The spread of plastic greenhouses has become noticeable in the northwestern regions of Syria, and their presence is evident on the edges of roads in agricultural lands. Many farmers have resorted to them in order to make the most of the limited agricultural spaces and obtain the largest possible quantity of production.

Cost versus profits

The importance of plastic greenhouse agriculture lies in its ability to produce vegetables out of season; however, it is expensive and requires equipment.

The Syrian agricultural engineer Mousa al-Bakr told Enab Baladi that preparing the structure of the plastic greenhouse made of iron and canvases is just the beginning of the operation. Then, the land must be prepared and plowed, and treated with pesticides and organic fertilizers, followed by laying drip irrigation lines, and weed removal, readying the land for planting with various crops such as tomatoes, cucumbers, or peppers.

Al-Bakr added that there are two systems for setting up a plastic greenhouse in northern Syria. In the Turkish system, there is a distance of two and a half meters between each pole, and five meters between each arc while its width is five and a half meters. In the Syrian system, its width is two and a half meters, and the length of the covered tunnel is eight meters.

He pointed out that the cost of one dunum (approximately 1,000 square meters) can reach up to 6,000 US dollars, including preparing the tunnel with iron and plastic canvas. The price varies depending on the thickness of the iron and the quality of the plastic, in addition to equipping the house both inside and out to prevent the formation of swamps which cause diseases to the seedlings.

Al-Bakr noted that if the farmer pays sufficient attention to the land, the profits will be high, as one dunum of tomatoes produces an average of 30 tons, which are sold according to market prices, as there is no fixed price for them.

Benefits of protected agriculture

Plastic greenhouses represent modern agricultural methods, contributing to increased productivity, providing a variety of vegetable crops continuously throughout the year, and are established to create an ideal environment for crop growth, ensuring protection from pests and weather fluctuations and allowing for control over growing conditions.

Agricultural engineer Emad Jamal, one of the investors in plastic greenhouses, told Enab Baladi, that protected cultivation is advanced in safeguarding plants from weather fluctuations like rising and dropping temperatures, for producing crops that are difficult to generate using traditional methods. Globally, these are referred to as “protected houses.”

Jamal considered that the “protected houses” have advantageous features that can be utilized. On one hand, it allows for intensified cultivation due to the small cultivated area, and on the other hand, it reduces production risks in case there are high fluctuations and numerous diseases and pests, or changes in temperature.

He added that some crop varieties are extremely high quality, and the farmer does not want to risk planting them in places that decrease their quality or expose them to diseases or pests out of control, hence their cultivation within “protected houses” enables one to estimate the quality of the variety and control any pest if it affects the crop.

Jamal explained that one of the advantages of protected cultivation is the utilization of agricultural space throughout the year, as farmers warm the plastic greenhouse during winter days. In the spring, they keep the crops within a closed area, and attain products not easily obtained at any time.

According to the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation in the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG) in Idlib, plastic greenhouses have contributed to reducing the import of vegetables in the liberated areas from 95,000 tons to 75,000 tons, and if such cultivation expands further, it will provide new job opportunities, reduce reliance on imports, and strongly support the economy.

Concerns and disadvantages

Engineer Emad Jamal spoke of the reluctance of many people to farm in plastic greenhouses due to their high costs. Hence, several investors in this type of agriculture opt for simple setups for their plastic houses.

Jamal does not believe that any farmer could cultivate in an advanced plastic greenhouse, as it is very costly and its techniques and arrangements are extensive, in addition to the lack of skills and experience, especially with regard to workers and engineers. They are capable of working, but the details of these greenhouses are numerous and require extensive experience.

One of the obstacles in plastic greenhouse farming in northern Syria is their use in an area different from the native one. Still, the farmers make efforts hoping to benefit because plastic greenhouses are typically planted in coastal regions where heating costs are lower. Tomatoes require high temperatures and fertilization; in Idlib, winter weather is cold, and farmers are compelled to heat, consuming about 70% of production cost value, according to Jamal.

In coastal areas, the costs are lower; night temperatures are higher than in other regions.

Protected cultivation in the north begins in the seventh or eighth month (July or August), and the farmer obtains the produce in the first month (January), with the heating only required in the last days.

Regarding the tomato crop, Jamal stated that it is the most consumed crop in the north; any farmer aiming to produce crops in plastic greenhouses thinks of tomatoes first because of their work pleasure, as he described. He noted that their yield is good and the work is exciting despite their high cost. However, their downside is that their cycle is slow and long-term compared to other varieties, making the first season a coverage for costs without profits.

Crops cultivated within plastic greenhouses can be affected by heavy rainfall and storms, which may cause damage.

Job opportunities

Engineer Emad Jamal sees plastic greenhouses as effective in agricultural expansion, creating greater diversity and intensification in agriculture, which has led to significant job opportunities and new professional prospects, such as building greenhouses, which requires blacksmiths and workers to manufacture the tarps and polystyrene. This agricultural expansion has led to commercial and industrial growth.

These cultivations have created many opportunities for workers and companies in the agriculture sector. Previously, agricultural pharmacies did not supply the needs of plastic greenhouses, whereas now, there is a demand for seeds and seedling production for greenhouses, and workers to tie up the threads. Every job related to plastic greenhouses occurs in winter, autumn, or late summer — times when workers cannot engage in labor extensively. Similarly, the farmer has no work to do on their land then.

Jamal added that tomatoes require seeds, fertilizers, medications, and some supplements, needing care from string tightening, pruning, treatment, watering, fertilizer, and pesticides. Following the proper steps can yield a good return, as one square meter can produce from 6 to 12 dollars (with the dollar at 30.2 Turkish lira).

Agriculture in Idlib province, northwest Syria, is a primary source of income for the region’s residents. However, military campaigns and instability, combined with the controlling forces’ lack of interest in agriculture, have significantly impacted it, leading to a decline in production and diversity.


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