Dubai: A passion for healthy food was the driving force behind turning a once desolate part of the desert into one of UAE's biggest organic farms.
The 42-acre Nazwa Organic Farm sits just off the Dubai-Hatta Road, around 40km out of Dubai, and produces over 60 varieties of vegetables, including potatoes, three varieties of capsicums and strawberries.
For the last decade it has been delivering its produce to residents in the Arabian Ranches, but has now expanded its operation with a farm shop at Umm Suqeim, off Al Manara Road.
Sandra Alonso, a Swiss expat in the Arabian Ranches, has been ordering vegetable boxes since the turn of the year. "The vegetables are harvested everyday and are very fresh. It's has no chemicals and that makes it unique. You just can't get that from supermarkets."
Fellow Ranches resident, Anna Hayworth, a British expat, has been shopping at the new Umm Suqeim store since it opened this month. "It's wonderful. You park up and the smell of basil wafts through the air," she said.
Video: Fresh from the farm
For Abdullah Saeed Abdullah Belhab, the Emirati owner of the farm, it has been a labour of love that is now on the verge of becoming a viable business proposition.
Shielded from the noise and dust of nearby roads, the farm has a mix of giant air-conditioned (30° Celsius) greenhouses with rows of green crops. It also has an area for chickens. "A lot of hard work has gone into making this farm into what it is now. It's been a real passion for me and now we want to take our produce to more people," Belhab said.
The produce is delivered twice a week to around 170 customers at Arabian Ranches, more often by the farm's General Manager, Elena Kinane, who has been living in the UAE for 13 years and is now deeply involved in the business.
"The unique thing about the farm as compared to big European organic farms is that we don't use any chemicals on our produce. Many people don't know that the organic vegetables they buy from the supermarkets are treated with chemicals to preserve them during the long journey from Europe. This means that the vegetables we produce cannot be transported long distances and must be eaten on the same day to enjoy their freshness," she said.
The impact of not using pesticides and insecticides is that less is produced, which in turn pushes up the cost of the vegetables.
"We could charge a lot more for what we produce, but we don't because we want to encourage people to eat healthy organic food and to do that you must offer quality produce at attractive price.
"Commercial vegetables appear bigger because they are mostly water. What people don't realise is that the longer a vegetable or fruit is produced the more it loses its nutrients. So when people think they are eating healthily they are not," Elena added.
However, going 100 per cent organic is risky. With no chemicals to protect crops from the hot and humid Dubai summer, the produce can easily get spoiled. The farm's entire broccoli crop, for example, was ruined after a sudden change in weather. "Over the last decade we did a lot of trial and error methods to find out what works best in this climate," she said.
There are considerable start-up costs with each of the new 45 greenhouses coming at a price of Dh5 million and a monthly electricity bill of Dh25,000.
A potential move to solar power may reduce this bill but will require a significant initial investment.
Running an organic farm in a desert presents obvious problems, including irrigating the crops. Nazwa uses around 50,000 gallons of water each day from its own underground well. Various kinds of vegetables are planted together so that they use up different nutrients in the soil, thereby allowing the soil to remain fertile.
"You'll see vegetables at various stages of growth. It's a labour-intensive job as we need to have people going around picking up the ripe ones. Generally, the quantities we produce are less when you compare us to other farms, but our aim is not to become a big commercial farm and export the produce. We want to stay rooted to selling vegetables to people in Dubai, thereby educating the younger generation on the benefits of going organic."
After two years of testing and inspections by the Ministry of Agriculture, the farm was given a gold certificate as it met the country's organic standards in September 2009.
"The standards we had to meet were higher than those in most European nations," Elena said.
The recognition has helped in expanding the business. The farm is now looking at cultivating more varieties of vegetables, even fruits for the first time and also increasing the number of chickens.
Work has also begun on a farm shop at Umm Suqeim, which will mean workers will harvest crops on a daily basis.
The produce will also be delivered to The Springs, The Greens, the Green Community, Emirates Hills and Motor City.
How big is the organic market?
The world's organic food market has been growing at a rate of 20-24 per cent annually.
The organic industry is estimated to have generated sales of $32 billion (Dh117.44 billion) in 2009. In the GCC, the market is valued at around $300 million (Dh1.1 billion). The global market grew by 10.9 per cent in 2007, reaching $43.5 billion (Dh159.6 billion). In 2012, this market is projected to have a value of $66.8 billion (Dh245 billion), a 53.6 per cent increase since 2007.
Although currently only a small number of UAE farms grows organic produce, the government has set a target of 3,000 hectares of agricultural land to be dedicated to organic farming. The most popular organic produce within the UAE is baby food, while fruits, vegetables and breakfast cereals are also big sellers.
Source: freshplaza.com and Alyasra Food Co
Certification for organic farming is done through the UAE Ministry of Agriculture.
Farms that want to become organic are inspected unannounced regularly.
The soil and crops are both tested. No pesticides or insecticides can be used. The fertiliser must also be organic.
There must be a diversity in crops and animals and they must not be from traditional intensive farming stock.
All seeds and plants used on the farm need to have an organic certification. Crops must acclimatise with environmental conditions.
Municipal waste water must not be used as it contains chemicals and heavy metals like mercury.
Source: THE UAE Ministry of Environment and Water