Early in April, on the day it rained cats and dogs for hours all over the UAE, I set off at 6:00am that cold and bleak morning from Ras Al Khaimah to the Greenheart Organic Farms store in Arjan, otherwise known as the Al Barsha South 2 area. We were heading there to meet Elena Kinane, Managing Director and Aisha Sumner, Operations Director & Partner, who would both accompany us to the farm location to meet their Agricultural Engineer & Partner, Azzam Mubarak and of course, tour their farm. The weather was not for the weak or faint-hearted and as we were neither, we cautiously drove on.
We were specially invited by the Greenheart team to tour their farm as part of an initiative of theirs to be transparent about their farming practices and share the concept of desert farming with those who are of like mind. We were thrilled to have the experts all to ourselves in what became a private tour due to the inclement weather.
By the time we reached the farm, the weather prevented us from shooting, but it certainly didn’t put a damper on our eagerness to talk organics with the partners and view the farm for a few hours for a very productive interview. It’s not often that both of us get a chance to make an appearance for Chef and Steward and Chef Lij was as eager to taste and see and explore the possibilities of them becoming suppliers once they get signed off on their HACCP certification, which they expect to complete soon.
It turns out that we made a second farm to shoot the photos, which was just fine by us. This time it was Steward, Apprentice and his aunty, who wore him in his carrier while sneaking him organic cherry tomatoes. This visit along with others including members of the food blogging group, Fooderati Arabia. including My Custard Pie, Pear Tree Diaries, Foodie n Flavours and popular dessert queen, Toffee Princess.
Farming in the UAE
While Greehneart is just a few years old, Elena is not new to organic farming here as it was she who operated the Naswa Farm, which pioneered the concept some time ago.
Expats are not allowed to own farm land in the UAE, so there is a huge risk to rent and invest in farming. Rentals have to be paid in advance and tenant farmers could find themselves at the mercy of landowners.
Usually it’s the owner who employs an agricultural engineer to farm the land. Greenheart works differently. They struck a partnership with their farmland owner who is passionate about animal husbandry and wanted to grow the best organic fodder for animals (alfalfa). It was a brilliant opportunity for a symbiotic partnership as organic farming needs animal manure, which helps to add structure, organic matter and nutrients that are necessary to grow produce in desert sand.
Growing produce in the desert is not as simple as it looks. It takes a bit of work to actually prime the land for growing things. The sand is porous and does not retain any water — so the soil is dry. There are two types of desert sand, salty and sweet. The sweet variety can be worked with using organic farming practices to improve the soil over time.
The Greenheart partners are so committed to the cause of growing organic food in the UAE long term that they do their own composting with animal manure and excess farm produce. This takes six months to break down and then it is added to the sweet sand.
Ground water used to irrigate local organic farms should be sweet, not salty, to which minerals should also be added as they are lacking from the sandy desert soil. Herbal fertilisers are made the Greenheart farmers and added to the sand. They add 10-15% of compost every 3 months, improving the chemicals without adding chemicals, which is a remarkable feat since other countries in places like Europe, Australia and USA with established organic farming actually allow a certain amount of chemicals within the range of what they certify as organic.
The organic certification dilemma
The sad truth about organics world-wide is that the definition of what is truly organic is defined differently by different certifying bodies. In places like Europe and the USA, the certification requirement allows the use of chemical nitrogen as much as desired in “organic” farming, which is ludicrous to use chemically engineered nitrogen without limitations. The exception is the smaller certifying bodies like BioLand but the larger certifying bodies tend to be much too permissive in this regard. This is where the consumer pays the price as no one actually inspects certified organic food to find out which body provided certification and what are the real guarantees of each certification.
LOVING THE GREENS: (clockwise from top) Elena Kinane (left) and Aisha Sumner; visitors at the farm; workers on the farm hauling fresh produce; agricultural engineer Azzam Mubarak
Another issue with certification is that the cost to get it is prohibitive for the vast majority of small organic farmers, who may end up selling their produce without certification. Certification attracts a premium price and, without it, food cannot be labelled organic in many countries. As a result, the sphere of organic farming has seen mass commercialisation. This makes the practice questionable because different crops take different things out of the soil and one of the basic tenets of organic farming is crop rotation, which helps to retain nutrients and even add them with produce like tomatoes which naturally add nitrogen.
The Greenheart Farmers use international organic seed banks to source seeds and then harden them up for the harsh growing conditions here. They grow the seeds on a trial in the rough conditions to harden them. Any seed that actually survives outdoors are the strong ones, which are later harvested in planted in the greenhouses as they are proven to withstand the desert conditions. When you see the level of detail that goes into that time-consuming process, it is clear that the trio are into organics not for the profit but for the sheer passion for good food grown right.
Since they do not have cold storage warehouse facilities nor spray their produce like some supermarkets to preserve them, the team has to harvest just enough quantities daily to supply their shop daily and wholesale customers. Orders are meticulously computed daily. This limits waste, which is an important element not only because of profits, but because of all the energy and resources it took to grown them in the first place. They have also added delivery of boxed items to customers spanning a wide price range from as little as 60AED. What I know for sure is that they are worth every cent.
Of course we took the opportunity to stock up on a box of veggies for our home especially since we were beginning to introduce The Apprentice to solid foods. Turns out he loves the produce, especially the lemon cucumbers, sweet cherry tomatoes and potatoes. Our green juices have never tasted better.
You can find the Greenheart Farm shop in the Arjan area in Al Barsha South, near to Miracle Garden.
For general information about shop timing, orders and farm tours visit their website www.greenheartuae.com or call 04 361 7010
For Frying Pan Adventure’s take on the farm visit, read her post here.
Delivery to Ras Al Khaimah
I am trying to find 10 people who wish to purchase boxes weekly to arrange for delivery to RAK for a nominal fee. If you are interested, leave me a comment below. If you know someone living in RAK who may be, please send them this post link.