Planting seeds: How heirloom vegetables have helped this UAE farm flourish in the desert

'We’re not trying to change the environment to fit the crops; we’re changing the crops to fit the environment,' says Greenheart Farms founder Elena Kinane

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A stroll through Greenheart Organic Farms reveals rows and rows of vibrant vegetation, despite the early October temperatures. Yet most producers in the Gulf don't even start growing crops until this time of year. "We've been growing all year," says Elena Kinane, the farm's founder. "Nobody would believe I have kale in October."

And there's more than just kale. Kinane also has 20 types of tomato, nine kinds of cherry tomato and 10 varieties of aubergine, plus numerous types of pepper, okra, courgette, collard greens, spinach and more, all grown from naturally harvested seeds. Of these, 200 varieties of vegetables are available for sale; 80 per cent of them heirloom and all of them organic and 100 per cent chemical-free.

Heirloom versus hybrid seeds

Heirloom seeds can become desert-proof over time. Courtesy Greenheart Organic Farms

Heirloom seeds are defined as old seeds – sometimes even hundreds of years old – created by natural harvesting or open pollination by birds, insects or the wind. They’ve generally adapted over time to their specific regions, climate and soil.

We're not trying to change the environment to fit the crops; we're changing the crops to fit the environment. Seeds and soil are living things; they will adapt

Kinane says heirloom seeds are the reason her farm is so plentiful year-round. By contrast, hybrid seeds, which produce the vegetables found on most supermarket shelves, are engineered to grow in a variety of conditions but don't adapt, and so last only three to four months and cannot be reused. They always have to be purchased again, and in the UAE, they're typically brought in from overseas. Heirloom seeds, on the other hand, can be used again and again, and eventually become desert-proof.

“We’re not trying to change the environment to fit the crops; we’re changing the crops to fit the environment,” Kinane says. “It is much more energy and financially intense to change the climate. Seeds and soil are living things; they will adapt.”

Greenheart Farms has had such success with its heirlooms that Kinane has completely done away with hybrid seeds for chillies, tomatoes, beans, lettuce and peppers, among other vegetables. Amaranth, a protein-rich green, is one of the most successful desert plants so far, she says, as is chard, red okra, a Hungarian wax chilli and Malabar spinach.

How does this garden grow?

Finding the right seed variety can take years. Courtesy Greenheart Organic Farms

Kinane starts the harvesting process by testing several seeds, then narrowing them down over two to four years. She's currently testing 17 varieties of heirloom cucumbers and hopes to narrow it down to five.

Once you have seeds that work, the yields go up and prices go down. Soon, more customers can afford organic food and food security increases

She plants a mother seed, then once it has grown, takes seeds from that plant, and plants them again. If the second iteration thrives, it's a winner.

This is slow work and can take years to find a successful variety, as was the case with Kinane's fennel. It took five years for her to find a seed that would survive the UAE heat. She sourced a variety from Italy, on a small farm in Florence.

This painstaking process is partly why it has taken Kinane 10 years to get her farm to where it is today, but now it's flourishing and Kinane could not be more proud. "I could supply all of Dubai with all the greens they'd ever need."

Weeding out detractors

She says people are sceptical of her process because it does take time. "It's slow, and people don't like slow, but now that we're at this point we could ramp it up within three years and have a huge impact."

There have been investments in hydroponics and other new technologies in farming over the years across the UAE, but not all of these have been successful, says Kinane. She believes an investment in organic heirloom farming is cheaper and produces better results.

SHARJAH, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - Elena Kinane founder of Greenheart Organic Farm at her farm in Sharjah.  Leslie Pableo for The National for Melanie Swan's story

Goats and chickens provide manure for compost at Greenheart Farms, which makes the soil nutrient-rich. Kinane also uses techniques such as interplanting garlic, celery and marigolds as a form of pest control – the smell repels insects – and laying her vines as low to the ground as possible where the air is cooler.

“We can’t exclude nature, that’s not normal,” she says. “We try to work with it as much as we can.”

Organic vegetables are healthy and tasty  

Chemical-free, organic produce is healthier for humans than food grown with chemicals and, arguably, it tastes better, too. When Kinane started planting her own food almost 20 years ago, it was for personal health reasons. Then, when her daughter was born, she decided to turn her passion into something bigger.

"I was just overwhelmed with love and thought, I have to do something to help feed kids healthy food in their formative years," she says.

Now, she hopes the lessons learnt from more than a decade of working with regenerative seeds and soil can help expand access to organic food across the region.

“Once you have the seeds that work, the yields start to go up and prices start to go down. Soon, more customers can afford organic food and food security increases. That’s what it’s all about,” she says.

Farming is hard work  

A small seed bank on the farm is key to its future. Such banks are used to preserve genes needed for drought tolerance, disease resistance, taste and other qualities, and to prevent the loss of genetic diversity. Kinane is saving up a bank of plants that can grow in the desert, despite the high temperatures.

Running Greenheart Farms can be exhausting. Kinane and her team of 11 harvest, plant and compost every day. They also collect and plant all seeds by hand, a labour-intensive, detailed process, not to mention maintaining delivery orders (customers across the UAE can order produce from the farm's website).

But when asked if she ever thinks about picking up and moving somewhere greener, more fertile and easier to grow, her answer is simple: "I've been here for 25 years, this is my home. And if you can make it work in the UAE desert, no one can say you can't make organic work anywhere else."