A growing scene: Exploring organic farms in the UAE

Meet some of the UAE's organic farmers and discover how the country's love of organic produce has exploded.
Scenes from Abdulla Al Owais’s organic farm in Al Dhaid. The site is one of two farms run by Al Owais, which produce as much as 100 kilograms of produce per day. Photos by Sarah Dea / The National
Scenes from Abdulla Al Owais’s organic farm in Al Dhaid. The site is one of two farms run by Al Owais, which produce as much as 100 kilograms of produce per day. Photos by Sarah Dea / The National

As the weather finally cools down, the outdoor market season begins. Craft, food and artisanal markets have been sprouting up in the past few weeks, and organic food seems to be more popular than ever.

The country’s largest genuine farmers’ market opened in Dubai last weekend, with some eager visitors arriving an hour before the opening to make sure they were at the front of the queue.

Abdulla Al Owais, 23, runs his family’s two farms in Sharjah and was the first to be certified as organic by the Ministry of ­Environment and Water.

His father, Abdulrahman, bought the land in 1993 and farmed it for personal use before establishing a commercial farm in 2005. The staple produce are tomatoes, cucumbers, sweet potatoes, herbs, aubergine, marrows and spinach. The first seeds are planted in October and the growing season lasts until about May. Only a handful of vegetables survive the summer months.

“When we started, there was only one organic farm, our farm, and last year there was 30 farms in the country,” says Abdulla Al Owais. “First, no one knew about what organic was, they just asked: ‘Why is it expensive?’ Now they understand it more; they are learning.

“We owned the farm and the animals ourselves; I grew up on the farm. We didn’t use chemicals at all, but there was nothing at that time to certify us as organic. We applied later, and got it and turned the farm into a ­business.”

The larger farm is 4.65 hectares in Al Dhaid, employing 50 staff, and the smaller is 2.5 hectares in Al Zubair. They yield more than 100 kilograms of produce per day during the busiest periods.

There are 35 greenhouses on the site, most of them protecting cucumbers.

Al Owais and his father also have more than 500 date palms. A lot of the yield is bought by the Government every year, he says, because it’s keen to keep the tradition alive by making it a sustainable venture for local farmers.

“We get our vegetables tested by the Government,” he explains. “They have their own labs and they tell us for how long the food will last. Every year, we renew the certificate and the farm is tested; the sand, the fertiliser, the food.”

Al Owais also keeps chickens for their eggs, 60 sheep and goats, and one cow, which he uses to get his daily fix of fresh milk and to make cheese. “The driver goes every day to get the fresh milk. The animals are a hobby for me. I know people living here for more than 10 years, and they have meat at my house and they say it’s the best meat here.”

While the local goats are good for meat, he says, they do not produce enough milk to make cheese.

The farm’s clients include the Union Cooperative, The Farm House, Baker & Spice and Ripe, which then sell the products at its own weekly markets.

The family have witnessed the changing market in the last decade, but awareness of organic produce is still limited in some places.

“I can see now that it’s changing,” Al Owais says. “Day by day, they are getting it. There are 25 farms in Abu Dhabi, but they sell very little in Abu Dhabi; they sell it all in Dubai. More than 50 per cent of our stuff goes to Dubai. Every day, three cars go to Dubai and one goes to Sharjah and Ajman.”

The biggest problem for the farm is sourcing good organic seeds. Al Owais tends to bulk-buy from Europe when he travels or snap up the occasional ones available locally. “We order them online or when I travel. Last time, I bought them from Austria and Germany. I think The Farm House is working on wholesale organic seeds – this would be a great thing.

“It is a problem. When I buy them when I travel, I pay retail prices. It would be good to have wholesale seeds sold here. It would encourage more farmers to go organic.”

Al Owais is among more than 10 local farms that set up stalls at the Farmers’ Market on the Terrace, at Jumeirah Emirates Towers in Dubai, selling produce picked the same morning. Many of the stalls are manned by the Emirati farm owners and their expatriate workers, who are able to answer any questions about their farms.

Now in its sixth season, the market prides itself on its close relations with the farmers. It was set up by Yael Mejia, the food consultant at Baker & Spice, who wanted to encourage local farms to adopt organic practices so she could fill Baker & Spice’s menu.

“It is possible and it is a growing movement,” she says. “Being able to talk directly to the farmers is a luxury I never had in London. Who in central London could be in touch with a farmer, or two, or 10, on a daily basis? Nobody.”

Mejia started with three farmers and now works with a dozen. As well as an expansion of food, she is bringing yoga and the ancient art of tai chi to the market.

Arif Lootah, of Integrated Green Resources, began organic farming as a family business seven years ago and now has 10 hectares spread over three farms. Two are near Al Rahba, Abu Dhabi, and one is in Al Khawaneej, Dubai, and there are 15 people tending the land.

“We are a health-conscious family, that’s why we started farming organic,” says the Emirati. “When we started, we saw a niche in the market. Most of the produce was full of chemicals.

“I studied in the US, graduated in 1994, and when I was there, the organic revolution started, if you can call it that. We took the idea from there. They started supermarkets like Whole Foods.

“In the beginning, people here were more cautious; they think it is just expensive.”

Organic foods are usually priced higher than non-organic goods because of the cost of growing them. Organic seeds, feed, soil and fertiliser are all more expensive than the regular varieties.

“You have to put more care into it if you don’t use chemicals, so it is a little bit more expensive,” says Lootah.

The company’s clients include Down to Earth, The Farm House, Baker & Spice and Ripe.

The three farms deliver 500kg to 700kg of produce every day, including aubergines, butternut squash, cucumbers, sweet potatoes, radishes, okra and spinach, as well as free-range eggs.

They use an average of 50,000 gallons of water every day.

“In summer, we produce a little bit less. We try to do it in the seasons. November is the busiest month; everything is ready.”

In the past month, outdoor markets have been popping up around the country. The Ripe Food and Craft Market now runs in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah. There’s also a growing number of organic supermarkets, including the Organic Foods and Cafe in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, which imports much of its stock, Blue Planet Green People, The Farm House and Greenheart Organic Farms Shop.

Some of the major supermarkets including Spinneys, LuLu and Carrefour also stock a small variety of products, and it appears that from here onwards the availability of organic product is only set to grow and grow.

munderwood@thenational.ae

Published: December 4, 2014 04:00 AM

SHARE

Editor's Picks
NEWSLETTERS
Sign up to:

* Please select one