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Morocco's organic farming is growing

Community supported agriculture is sprouting in Morocco.

A laborer tills a field of organic vegetables on community-supported agriculture farm outside Rabat. (Erik German/GlobalPost)

SHOUL, Morocco — On a 50-acre farmstead outside the country’s capital, the scene did little to evoke agriculture on the cutting edge: Two lanky men in mud boots labored across a loamy field.

Slowly and by hand, they dropped seeds into rows of furrowed dirt. Behind them, a third man guided a horse-drawn harrow that looked as old as farming itself, covering each kernel with a layer of coffee-brown earth.

As this trio of laborers planted winter peas, they were practicing a form of agriculture that counts as innovative even in Europe or the United States. The operation is completely organic and its owner, Mustapha Belhacha, 31, has struck a deal with a group of urban families to buy his produce half a year before it comes out of the ground.

“We take the money in advance, with checks, in a way that’s truly new,” Belhacha said. “This system is more consistent, it gives us time to think about what we need to plant, what the customers want.”

Belhacha has joined what may be Morocco’s first association dedicated to Community-Supported Agriculture, or CSA. The group’s founders aim to change the way farming is done in this North African nation.

The surging popularity of organic food in the United States and Europe has been matched by a steady rise in organic farming in the developing world. The amount of land under organic cultivation worldwide has more than doubled since 2000, according to the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, a non-profit trade group based in Bonn, Germany. According to the group’s latest survey, more than one third of the world’s 79 million acres or organic farmland are in Latin America, Asia or Africa.

Operations like Belhacha’s — in which small, organic farmers contract with local customers to deliver weekly baskets of in-season produce — make up a still-smaller subset of this number. But experts on this kind of localized, personalized farming say the model is well-suited to take off in countries where agriculture has not yet been completely overtaken by heavy industry.

“I think CSA has tremendous potential in the developing world,” said Steven McFadden, author of “Farms of Tomorrow,” and several other books on community-supported agriculture. “It doesn’t necessarily require the kinds of inputs that industrial agriculture relies on.”

The forerunners to the modern CSA model first appeared in Japan and Switzerland during the 1960s and 1970s. The movement then spread to America in the mid 1980s, starting with just two farms in rural New Hampshire and Massachusetts and growing to include more than 12,000 operations today, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department.