Soil free and sustainable: inside The Farmhouse in Ras Al Khaimah

The Farmhouse is bringing hydroponically grown, pesticide-free produce to the UAE market

Hives of a species of bumblebee more resilient to humid conditions facilitate pollination in the close greenhouses. Courtesy The Farmhouse
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It is anticipated that The Farmhouse will deliver 1.2 million tonnes of sustainable, hydroponically grown, pesticide-free produce to market this year, rising to a projected four million tonnes annually once expansion plans at the Ras Al Khaimah site are completed. Low food miles mean timely delivery – a product picked at its optimum ripeness can be on local supermarket shelves within 24 hours of it being harvested, and invariably tastes better.

The first seeds of the 430,000-square-foot facility were planted in December, the first harvest was in early March, and The Farmhouse has continued to pick its crops on a daily basis ever since.

Food sustainability and security remain a key focus of Government, and the UAE is committed to ongoing research, development and investment in this arena. Currently, the UAE imports between 80 and 90 per cent of its food, and with costs and population numbers both projected to rise further, there is increasing impetus to source sustainable supplies of food from within the UAE.  

Conventional farming in a desert climate is too resource-hungry to cost-effectively and sustainably grow food to meet local requirements. The outdoor growing season is limited to the relatively cooler winter months and has substantial irrigation needs, at a time when natural water resources are becoming increasingly scarce and need to be conserved.

By using a hydroponic model – growing plants in a soil-less medium – adapted for this region, The Farmhouse grows a variety of produce, which includes capsicums, cucumbers, local marrows, zucchini, melons and several different types of tomato, 365 days a year.

Operations director Esteban Barrachina reports that this type of system “saves 90 per cent of water consumption compared to traditional irrigation methods in the same conditions”. Barrachina is originally from Almeria in the south-east of Spain, and has spent more than 30 years working on developing a farming greenhouse model that is capable of performing in hot weather conditions.

A pilot project utilising this system has been operating in the Gulf for the past six years, where it has been further refined in response to the challenging summer temperatures.

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Rick Guy, general manager at The Farmhouse, took me on a tour of the greenhouses to explain the attributes that help to make its hydroponic produce a model for future sustainability and desert growth. Seedlings are started off in the germination room and then planted out into a bag of coconut fibre, which Guy describes as “shavings from a coconut tree”.

These are sourced in Sri Lanka and delivered as a flatpack, into which a dripper with sensing technology is added. This ensures the plant receives the optimum amount of water and nutrients required at different stages of growth. “Drainage is not necessary and the bags are completely sealed beneath, so there is no water waste and minimal evaporation,” explains Guy.

The system is designed to deliver the precise amount of water and nutrients the plant needs to thrive, and no more. The bags can be used for three or four years to service successive crops before they need to be replaced.

No chemical pesticides are used on the plants, although the addition of some small predatory insects acts as a deterrent to other bugs that might like to feed on the vegetables. Bumblebee hives are an essential feature of the closed greenhouses, in order to facilitate crop pollination. This type of bee is more resilient in the humid conditions of the greenhouses than other species found locally.

Temperatures within the greenhouses are kept at a constant range of 28°C to 32°C. The fans within work in conjunction with a fogging system that sprays cool water every 20 minutes or so, keeping the in-house humidity at about 50 per cent, just as the plants prefer. The addition of a moist cooling fog has proved very successful for growing and was an adaptation of the systems previously used in Spain.  

Gravel is laid on the floor of the houses as it is a poor conduit of heat and helps to keep the temperatures of the growing bags contained. There are external shade schemes and vents so that, ultimately, lots of small elements combine together to tailor and adapt the greenhouses to a GCC climate.

A mission control room gives an overview of the entire operation on computer screens, where humidity, moisture levels, hydroponic solutions and temperature levels are all constantly monitored. A phone app alerts supervisors, even when off-site, of any unacceptable deviations. This allows them to manage any issues by calling in necessary adjustments, before any damage is done to the plants, especially when things are time critical at the height of summer.

The Farmhouse is currently waiting for its accreditation visit from Global GAP, a farm assurance programme related to good agricultural practice.While all produce is grown without the use of pesticides or potentially toxic chemical fertilisers, there is some debate worldwide as to whether crops grown without soil can also be termed organic.

The drip systems at The Farmhouse are adapted to adjust rations for different plants at different stages of their growing cycle – yet there’s nothing going into the plants that wouldn’t otherwise be found in good soil. There is certainly a case to be made that hydroponic produce is organic and that the solution of NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium), plus other elements, provides the plants with the same nutrients as good soil.

However, the counterargument runs that organic produce should also be about maintaining good soil quality – something that clearly is not a requirement of hydroponic growing, where the need for any soil contact is negated. Currently, the latter view is the one taken by ESMA, the Emirates Authority for Standardisation and Metrology.

To boost the farm's sustainability credentials, Guy is planning on replacing the plastic trays used to present produce sold in Choithrams, Al Maya, West Zone and via Barakat, with biodegradable palm fibre trays that are made from a waste product of the palm oil industry, making them a natural, sustainable alternative to plastics.

The long-term future of sustainable farming in the UAE will undoubtedly feature increasingly sophisticated hydroponic models, as water supplies need to stretch further. Yet, this type of growing yields another benefit: it tastes really good and, as it is grown locally, it is fresher when it arrives to market and retains more nutritional value too. It's a winning combination.