Andy Mills finds out how the recent developments being made in the market could mark a new era for organic farming in the Emirates.
Head eastbound out of Abu Dhabi on theE20 towards Sweihan and you’re soon into desert. Heat pours off the tarmac and there’s very little aside from the usual shrubs and sand until you get around 20km past Abu Dhabi International Airport. As you approach the first major roundabout on the Sweihan Road, there’s an oasis of green in the distance over to your right. It’s an inviting sight and, surrounded by palms, stands out a mile off. This is what used to be known as the Abu Dhabi Organic Farm, one of the principle suppliers of local, organic fresh produce in the region.
But things are changing; under new management, in the form of Al Rawafed Agriculture, the farm is planning to expand its current 53 hectare organic set-up, offering a greater crop of eco-friendly foods to the Emirates. In fact, its expansion will add a 250 hectare development irrigated through innovative new techniques, with a significantly higher yield of fruits and vegetables expected. ‘Organic food is such a niche market with a dedicated clientele of people who know the benefits,’ explains Julian van der Nat, project manager of Al Rawafed Organic Farm. ‘The only thing you sacrifice compared to normal commercial farming is volume; look, taste, size and colour are all the same with organic now, sometimes even better.’ The problems of using pesticides and chemical fertilizers in farming are well documented, examples of damaged ecosystems and health through improper use blighting the agricultural industry in many parts of the world.
As Julian points out, the experience of commercial farming is now driving farmers more towards organic methods due to the long term benefits to the land. Fortunately, technology and some smart thinking is also helping to increase the volumes of food produced without using pesticides. Julian tells us about a US experiment with subsurface drip irrigation run under soil that increased the crop yield in a year by over five times while using less water. ‘Personally I think there is a lot of harm being done to the planet, but we’re also in a consumer world and the world is hungry, so we have to be realistic,’ he adds. ‘Organic food doesn’t work for everyone right now as the economies of scale generally make it more expensive, but it’s important to keep pushing.’
Currently the farm is being prepared for the next stage; the soil is being covered in plastic sheets that use natural heat to kill any damaging pests without harming the land. During growing periods they will also continue to use natural enemies like lady bugs to control any pests that do appear. The new-look farm is set to be running by November, with fruit and vegetables being the main produce, and perhaps organic eggs too. Lemons, limes, bananas, figs, pomegranates, mangoes and grapes will all be on the fruit menu, while their range of vegetables will be more flexible. As fruits appear on slow-growing trees they, by nature, have to be a more fixed range. ‘We want to make it more of a community thing too,’ says Julian.
‘At the moment we’re talking with our retail customers, like Ripe and Etihad Airways, to find out what their customers want. We also want to follow something they do in the US, by having ‘market days’ where people can come directly to us, see where it’s grown and get their weekly fruits and vegetables, at better prices too.’ There’s even talk of building a small kitchen and restaurant for people to come and enjoy fresh meals in, creating areas for families to picnic and using a selection of the farm’s animals to become a kind of petting zoo. That could equate to a healthy, tasty and fun day out for all the family, with an added feel-good factor that only going organic can give.
While the developments at Al Rawafed Organic Farm are still under development, this expansion and upgrading of the technology used for organic farming in the region, signifies a stronger future for the local, organic food scene.