Penelope Walsh visits Greenheart Organic Farm’s Sharjah site and unearths its holistic approach to local produce.
From top chefs to consumers, organic as well as locally produced food has earned increased interest in Dubai. Since 2012, a number of farm shops such as Ripe in Al Manara, Blue Planet Green People in JLT, The Farm Shop in Souk Al Manzil and Greenheart Organic Farms in Al Barsha have opened. Over the past two years, the number of weekly farmers’ markets has grown steadily, to even include a government-run initiative located next to the long-standing fish market in Shindagha, as a significant sign of support for the local, organic farming scene being taking seriously in this country.
Now, restaurants including Urban Bistro, Massaad Farm to Table, The Taste Initiative and Rang Mahal by Atul Kochhar are launching with a commitment to local sourcing expressed as part of their opening mission and concept. As supply grows and demand increases from restaurants and consumers, the two appear to be feeding off each other symbiotically. Although the world as a whole is a long way off from the all-organic, all-local eating that our ancestors enjoyed, there is definitely a positive change rumbling away in the UAE’s soil.
It is important to point out, however, that organic and locally grown do not always go hand-in-hand, although this can occasionally be the assumption. While farms in the region are certainly taking more care over how they produce their harvest, there have been murmurs suggesting that organic labels in this region are not always as 100 percent chemical-proof as you’d assume. Occasional claims regarding local sourcing can also be confusing and supply chains can come with issues of limited traceability. For example, have you ever realised that ‘locally sourced’ is sometimes interpreted to mean from India, Jordan and Lebanon?
One organic and local company that it would be tricky to level any such concern at is Greenheart Organic Farms. This group of farms is detailed and open about how and where its produce is grown. Most recently, Greenheart’s transparency has even extended to an invite to Time Out Dubai to see one of the farms for ourselves, and it was an offer we were quick to jump at.
According to Elena Kinane, founder of Greenheart Organic, in order to get under the surface of what is being sold as organic, consumers need to understand the right questions to ask. ‘Does the farm have animals for example? Because if they are not keeping animals, where do they get their fertiliser for the soil?’ she says. For most consumers, the detailed knowledge required about desert farming to challenge the sellers is out of their reach.
Having grown up around organic farming, Elena Kinane has long had a passion and interest in it and had previously operated the Nazwa farm shop in Al Manara, which closed in 2010. Not deterred by this, and still determined to offer an eco-lifestyle orientated business to the UAE, the following year in 2011, Elena launched Greenheart Organic Farms in conjunction with business partner Azam Mubarak. In addition to home delivery (and numerous collection sites across Dubai) Greenheart Organic Farms has gone on to supply all the fresh produce for NKD Pizza (aside, Elena tells us, from the artichokes), open its own farm shop in 2013 and provide ingredients for healthy juice specialists Detox Delight. Despite the growth of farmers’ markets, however, this is one avenue that Greenheart Organic Farms has not explored. ‘The markets generally take place on a Friday, and this is the day off and holy day for most of the farm workers. I don’t want to force them to work on their day off,’ Elena explains. With this, Elena also gives us an example of the company’s holistic, sustainable and ethical attitude towards farming.
The first thing that hits you on arrival at the Greenheart Organic farm in Sharjah is the smell of manure. In order to adhere to 100 percent organic farming, Elena explains that it is important for farms to keep animals (in the case of this farm, chickens, while goats are also keep at the farm in Ras Al Khaimah). At this farm, the chickens are fed on the all-organic produce grown by the farm, specifically alfafa grass, which is considered especially nutritious.
Manure from the chickens is then used to fertilise the soil (and added at each growing cycle), which in turn nourishes the crops, which will later feed the chickens (and the consumers). As such a very natural, in fact old-fashioned and entirely organic cycle of life is established on the farm. Elena explains that the care taken in building the soil is especially important in desert farming where the natural sand (rather than soil) requires extra care to make it nutrient-rich. As Elena shows us the well of ‘sweet water’ (or fresh water, as opposed to salt water) dug deep from a natural spring, she tells us that the availability of this type of water is also a key issue for desert farming in the UAE.
Greenheart Organic also places importance on the use of heirloom seeds, which they use predominantly across the farm. Heirloom seeds are ancestral seeds (used by generations of farmers before us), which can be taken from the new crop, dried and used again each year. Hybrid seeds in contrast are the new generation of seeds, which cannot be used again each year, and have been modified to provide more reliable harvests and consistent crops.
Elena explains that one small row of tomatoes grown with hybrid seeds (among a huge air-conditioned growing house full of heirloom varieties) is effectively there as a little insurance and security against an entirely blighted crop. A bristly looking vegetable, that has more in common with a pomander or a yellow, overgrown gooseberry than anything else we’ve seen before, is in fact an heirloom cucumber called a lemon cucumber, which Elena says pre-dates the variety we are now more familiar with.
Elena points out how turnips and radishes in the same patch have grown to different sizes and explains how this indicated that they have absorbed the nutrients in the soil at different stages of their growth, where as there is greater uniformity in the absorption (and therefore appearance) of most hybrid crops. One patch of tomatoes, Elena points to has been left to over-ripen and will not be harvested, to allow the seeds to be dried, collected and planted again the following year.
Between rows of other vegetables, we stumble across stray plants, which have seeded and grown of their own accord. This, Elena explains, is something that will only happen with heirloom varieties, as a vindication of nature’s power to make these seeds grow (perhaps buried in the soil from last year’s harvest), despite having no intention of seeing it grow there.
The farm provides a same-day harvest of its fruit and vegetables, meaning the produce in the shop has been picked the same morning. It also means the produce is at the peak of freshness when it hits the shop, and we’re told the shop is only stocked with as much as will be realistically sold in one day. As such, the farm shop even opens later in the morning, and only three days a week, in order to facilitate this. In a rare business move, Elena tells us that the number of farms being operated by the company in the UAE has been reduced from six to three. This is partly in a bid to reduce the quantity of driving required (across the country) in order to continue providing this daily harvest. Instead, Greenheart Organic has made the decision to downsize and develop those remaining farms.
Farm-fresh quality achieved by same-day harvesting is seen in the appearance of these vegetables the second after they are picked. The kale has ethereal silvery tones, together with a vibrant and intense purple colour. The intense smell of tomatoes is not just evident on the fruit itself, but embedded in your fingers after simply touching the leaves of the tomato vine. The sweet basil plants have huge sculptural leaves, glossy in appearance and are intense in flavour. But it is the glory of the aubergines that really wows. This dark-skinned variety, Elena says, does well in the UAE, while purple eggplants cannot be grown outside in this region, because the skin blisters. The aptly named ‘black beauty’ variety have ripened in the desert sun and the result is certainly the most attractive specimen you may ever see: dark, shiny and as taut as a glass marble.