When you think of what it takes to grow plants, the first components that invariably come to mind are soil and water – two ingredients that deserts tend to have in short supply. But as a local Abu Dhabi farm is proving, these elements are not as necessary as previously thought.
Employing hydroponics – a method of growing plants using nutrient-rich solutions rather than soil – City Farm supplies many of Dubai’s supermarkets with lettuce, herbs, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and strawberries. Indeed, so successful has the process become that City Farm’s air-conditioned greenhouse has been nicknamed ‘Little Holland’ by wholesalers.
‘The lettuce growing out of our greenhouse is European lettuce, grown under European management,’ explains Rudi Azzato, City Farm’s marketing director. ‘Yet we believe that the quality is better than most of what comes out of Europe, because it is closer. You avoid the delays in time and customs. So it’s as if we have a Holland [where the UAE’s imported lettuces usually come from] all of our own, right in Abu Dhabi.’
It’s amazing how much can be grown on a relatively small patch of land using hydroponics. Little Holland produces approximately 750,000 kilograms of lettuce each year, on a site eight to 10 times smaller than traditional farms. Furthermore, Little Holland can grow lettuce even during the UAE’s austere summer months. Outside of the greenhouse, lettuce can only grow for about five months of the year.
How does this apparent agricultural miracle work? Plants are laid out in troughs filled with a super-absorbent, nutrient-rich, soil substitute through which water is fed. ‘Any water that isn’t absorbed is sent back to the underground tank,’ Azzato explains.’ While a traditional farm might blow through 320 gallons of water to produce a kilogram of lettuce, City Farm only uses 10 gallons. To continue the eco-friendly theme, the ‘wool’ the plants are grown in is both bacteria- and chemical-free – a claim not even entirely organically produced plants (which tend to employ manure, a potential source of bacteria) manage to achieve.
So is hydroponics the future of agriculture in the UAE? Azzato thinks so, simply because you can create a controlled environment for growing fruit and vegetables. ‘The whole infrastructure of the region,’ he notes, ‘is developing so fast and with it comes an increased need for fresh produce, most of which is currently being imported.’ I don’t see why, as a nation, we can’t develop hydroponics so that it supplies all the country’s needs,’ Azzato expounds. ‘And maybe, during the off-season,’ he says with a smile, ‘we can even export produce back to Europe.’