There is a part of Abu Dhabi where the vast desert is broken up by date palms, irrigated fields and rows of greenhouses.
These are farms that yield everything from dates to honey to plump aubergines.
But behind the tall, white gates of “Below Farm” in Al Rahba, something even more special is happening.
Here in a cluster of white buildings, a 10-person team grows six varieties of premium mushrooms such as pink oyster, shiitake and lion’s mane. Forget the button mushroom factories of years gone by with their black plastic, Below Farm is pioneering a new type of sustainable agriculture in the desert that requires little water and no arable land.
These mushrooms are on sale at supermarkets such as Spinneys and at online delivery companies such as Kibsons, and will soon be on plates at Emirates Palace.
“We talked to five-star hotels and executive chefs,” said Liliana Slowinska, co-founder of Below Farm.
“They were wary of putting such mushrooms on the menu in case next week they wouldn’t be available. But we are here to stay.”
Below Farm was established in 2021. Its first harvest was in May and it now plans to ramp up production using its unique way of growing fungi. The mushrooms grow on special blocks that are made from local waste wood and palm frond cuttings that are mixed with grains such as wheat bran.
This mix is then compressed, packed in bags and sterilised.
The mycelium — or mushroom starter culture — is then added. Mycelium is essentially the root system of mushrooms and each variety has a different one.
“When you walk in the forest, everything under the ground is mycelium,” said Ms Slowinska, also the company's chief executive. “It is the unseen, underground network beneath fungi.”
Then the logs are stacked in air-conditioned rooms. When the mushrooms start to sprout — a process known as fruiting — an incision is made in the plastic that allows the fungi to absorb oxygen and grow. Wojciech Slowinski, chief technical officer at the farm, cuts a mushroom and gives it to us to smell. It could have been picked from that forest that morning.
“I lived in a small village in Poland and every weekend you would go out for mushrooms,” said Mr Slowinski, with a smile. “We would wake up early and go to the forest. It was a totally different world.”
The Polish forests of Mr Slowinski’s youth have been replaced by the deserts of Abu Dhabi but the enduring fascination with mushrooms remains. Unlike button mushrooms that grow on manure, these are known as “primary decomposers” that eat through wood so it is a cleaner process. Central to the farm’s ethos is sustainability. No pesticides or fertilisers are used.
They require little water and no arable land. The grow blocks can be reused several times and then composted or used for fuel or as fertiliser, and the mushrooms are picked by hand and transported using recyclable boxes.
“Our produce is air mile free,” said Ms Slowinska.
An automated system controls temperature and humidity to allow Below Farm to currently grow 120 tonnes of mushrooms a year. Each variety needs a certain temperature to thrive with oyster mushrooms, for example, preferring a temperature of around 20°C.
Just three years ago the idea of running a vertical farm in Abu Dhabi was just a dream.
The Slowinskis, along with Bronte Weir, the farm’s research and development officer who is from the UK, had never worked in agriculture and they left corporate jobs in Dubai to make it happen. The duo, having sold their house to invest in the business, were scouting for land when they asked Ms Weir to join the project.
“That big corporate job wasn’t an area of passion for me,” said Ms Weir. “I was looking for something that brought more fulfilment and joy.”
Below Farm is at the forefront what is being called the global mushroom boom that has witnessed a surge of interest in fungi and their health benefits. Mushrooms are high in protein.
They can also be used as powder to thicken stews and give flavour. Some types have medicinal benefits. Mycelium can be used to make plant-based packaging, coffee, mushroom leather, and even a type of vegan meat. Now the boom has reached the Abu Dhabi desert.
“They are completely misunderstood,” said Ms Slowinska. “We are beginning to understand how they can heal us and feed us and clothe us.”
But the journey to Below Farm was a time-consuming process with the team scouring through adverts for land to rent. The team put in “insanely long” 16-hour days to make it happen.
While Below Farm declines to disclose costs, its founders say they are not getting financial support from the government but did benefit from legislation changes made by the UAE in 2020 that allowed them full ownership. “It was a lot of blood, sweat and tears — a lot of 'sweatquity',” said Ms Slowinska, with a chuckle.
“But it is incredible. I welled up to see the first mushrooms.”
The UAE traditionally has imported between 80 and 90 per cent of its food but has sought to bolster its food security in recent years by producing more domestically.
Tomatoes, blueberries and lettuce are grown in Abu Dhabi in controlled agricultural environments, for example, that mean water and energy use is tightly regulated. These systems are known as agri-tech. The controlled environment at Below Farm, for example, means there is no season. Mushrooms are grown every day of the year.
And the cost? A 200g box of shiitake mushrooms grown at Below Farm costs about Dh17. Soon they plan to launch “grow your own” mushroom kits and want to increase the varieties of mushrooms grown there.
“We took a very big risk to follow our dreams,” said Ms Slowinska. “It was extremely scary at the start but the reaction has been great. This is just the beginning.”