Above: Dr. Ryan Lefers is turning his research on sustainable farming and water usage into a business. Credit: Red Sea Farms

Ryan Lefers started his Red Sea Farms project with partner Mark Tester to find better ways to bring food and water security to desert communities. Discovering new ways to save energy and reduce carbon emissions while doing it was a bonus.

Lefers, a research scientist at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia whose unique agtech project uses sunlight and seawater to commercially farm produce indoors in otherwise harsh growing environments, grew up on a dairy farm in South Dakota in the American Midwest, where he learned early that a capricious Mother Nature could make or break a harvest.

“Checking the weather in the morning and evening was just part of life,” he says, “and usually the question to be addressed was ‘When are we going to get rain?’”

In his work studying sustainable agriculture and water usage, he brought that sensibility to the even harsher climate of the Middle East, where the answer to the question “When are we going to get rain?” is usually “Don’t hold your breath.”

“When your harvest is dependent on the whims of nature, there are significant risks of failure. Hail, drought, insects, weeds, floods and frost are just a few of the obstacles to success in open-field farming in the Midwest.

In the Arabian Peninsula, you can add to that list sandstorms, excessive heat, poor-quality soils and excessive humidity,” Lefers says.

“We work around these challenges by putting most of our high-value crops indoors in protected controlled environments, and we do it in an energy- and water-efficient way using sensors and a growing database to get the best results for our planet, our crops, our communities and our bottom line.”

IMAGES: Red Sea Farms

Most traditional greenhouses in the desert region use grid energy and freshwater to water plants and keep the greenhouses cool. But Lefers and his team capitalize instead on desert resources – sun, saltwater, and a lot of both – to reduce operational expenses and grow crops close to the markets they serve. This in turn increases local food security and reduces the costs and challenges of shipping delicate produce long distances.

Red Sea Farms, based in Saudi Arabia, uses solar power and saltwater to both water crops and cool the greenhouses. Plants are selected for saltwater tolerance, and material selection, smart engineering design and smart control systems allow the cooling systems to weather saltwater’s corrosive effects, Lefers says.

And the tomatoes? “A bit of salt in irrigation for crops like tomatoes actually increases physical properties like brix (often used as a measure of sweetness/taste) and vitamin and mineral content,” Lefers says. “We find that our tomatoes irrigated with salty water taste amazing and have a longer shelf life as well.”

Lefers thinks his approach is especially relevant in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic that exposed serious weaknesses in traditional supply chains. “(It helps) build the case for why we should be looking at growing crops that have a short shelf life locally as much as possible,” he says.

Up to 95 percent less freshwater use
as compared with a traditional
desert greenhouse.

Up to 90 percent less energy use than mechanically cooled greenhouses.

Number of sites in Saudi Arabia where
tech is deployed today

Number of countries with active projects

“The big question is how can we do this? Our technologies enable these crops to be grown locally – providing resilience in the face of supply-chain disruptions. Add to this the growing consumer awareness and demand for local and healthy food and we expect a bright future for local communities who will benefit from agriculture systems operating using our platform of technologies.”

And which communities would benefit from this platform of technologies? One or more pieces of the Red Sea Farms technology platform can be used anywhere, but it’s especially suited to communities in harsh environments globally, Lefers says.

“These environments may include deserts, island communities, regions with significant solar resources, coastal communities and regions and/or structures with significant humidity challenges.” As for Red Sea Farms, the future is growth, Lefers says.

“We are aggressively pursuing opportunities for growth locally (in Saudi Arabia), regionally (in the near MENA region) and globally (with North America as our first step in this). We are excited about bringing our innovative platform of technologies for agriculture systems in harsh environments from Saudi Arabia to the world.”

He adds: “On a personal note, I look forward to the day in the future when I can look back and see how we, as the Red Sea Farms team and as a global community working toward this common goal of food security, have managed to both improve the lives of people and protect/enhance the planet we live on for future generations.”

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