Calmly, slowly, and naturally

There is a growing demand for organic produce in Dubai – and local farmers are explaining how they produce nutrient-rich vegetables in a sea of sand

In a city where the hottest eateries seem to pop up every five minutes, Dubai’s multicultural population makes for some mouth-watering combinations of cuisines from around the world.

More recently, organic food has been added to the mix. As Gary Rhodes and Greg Malouf number among the culinary glitterati with restaurants in Dubai, the rise of the celebrity chef culture in the UAE and popularity of healthy living has given a bump to home cooking and the hunt for organic produce.

Last year, sales of organic packaged food in the UAE reached $16.3m, according to Euromonitor International. By 2018, the market research firm anticipates retail sales will grow by 31 per cent to $21.1m.

I would agree desert farming sounds crazy if you don’t understand how to do it

Elena Kinane, Greenheart Organic Farms

The demand for organic produce grown locally in the UAE is also on the rise. Dubai-based retailer, Ripe, sources and sells organic produce from 10 local farms in the UAE, which it sells through its delivery service and at food markets.

“My husband works in agriculture, so I knew there was an abundance of local UAE farms growing great produce,” says Becky Balderstone, Ripe’s founder. “But there weren’t any specific retail outlets for organic fruits and vegetables.”

Launched in 2011, Ripe’s sales are testament to organic food’s popularity in the emirate: Ripe has grown from a handful to hundreds of deliveries of its organic fruit and veg boxes each week. Ripe also now has a farm shop and runs weekly food and craft markets in Dubai and Sharjah. The organisation launched its Abu Dhabi market in November.

While the amount of produce grown in the emirate may surprise some, keeping up with demand in the desert climate is a challenge. “From May to September the intense heat means a lot of produce just can’t grow and this obviously impacts on what we can provide customers,” says Balderstone. Ripe works with organic farmers in the region to help fill the gaps during the summer and meet customers’ orders.

Greenheart Organic Farms
Pickers at Greenheart Organic Farms

One organisation hoping to overcome this challenge has developed its own desert farming method for year-round crop growth. Founded two years ago, Greenheart Organic Farms grows and sells up to 250 boxes of freshly harvested mixed vegetables each week to customers as well as supplying clients such as NKD Pizza and Detox Delight.

The key has been patience, trial and error, according to managing director Elena Kinane. Greenheart’s farm in Dubai uses unmodified, heirloom seeds because, although they grow slower, they grow evenly and can acclimatise – and flourish – over several crop cycles to the hotter, dry climes.

“It’s a lot of research,” says Kinane. “This season alone we’re growing 12 different types of cherry tomatoes [to see which adapts best].” Greenheart also creates its own nutrient-rich soil for the crops, a process that takes around six to eight months. Her bestsellers are the kale and strawberries, when they’re in season.

“I would agree desert farming sounds crazy if you don’t understand how to do it,” says Kinane. “But it’s absolutely doable if done correctly. We are doing it and we want to share our knowledge through farm visits and educating people.”