Tucked away on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi and less than an hour’s drive from Downtown Dubai, lies an idyllic spot where nature lovers, fresh produce enthusiasts and young children flock to every weekend. What brings them here every Saturday morning from late October to May is the promise of all things organic, local and sustainable, and an opportunity to stroll amidst nature, discover where the food we eat comes from, and partake in the simple delights of picking up veggies directly from the soil.
Spread out on approximately 16,000 sq m, in the laidback suburban town of Al Rahba, lies the organic Farm 182 that sees a flurry of activity when it opens its doors to the public every Saturday from 8am to 5pm during the heart of the growing season in the UAE. Here, the greyish sandy soil has been converted into pockets of fertile green strips creating a lush verdant paradise where colourful vegetables, fragrant herbs and leafy greens thrive. Not a mean feat in a region known for its harsh climate, water scarcity and soil salinity.
Al Rahba Organic Farm 182 belongs to the farm network of Integrated Green Resources UAE that have been producing and distributing organic vegetables in the UAE since 2008 on a total surface area of around 900,000 sq ft. Although the company has several farms including in Al Rahba, Al Khawaneej in Dubai, and in Al Ain, Farm 182 is the only one that is open to visitors, says Ronald Manjoro, Agricultural Engineer at IGR, who leads us on a tour of the premises.
At 10am, the place is abuzz with the cheery sounds of little kids, sporting around with paper bags that will soon be filled up with their choice of vegetables. We hear a rooster repeatedly crowing in the distance and cars stream in continuously onto the gravel path, bringing in couples and families. The regular visitors have brought their own shopping bags and baskets while others pick up paper bags at the market corner where small heaps of colourful vegetables are neatly laid out in wicker baskets. Vans from other farms belonging to the IGR network regularly replenish the stock with varied produce as the morning wears on.
As we head out to the fields, Ronald tells us that both protected and open farming are practised at Farm 182, a certified organic farm by the Emirates Authority for Standardisation and Metrology (ESMA). “We also follow EU regulations in our farming practices and hold audits every year to ensure that the right standards and principles of organic farming are consistently adhered to.”
While organic farming generally refers to the growing and nurturing of crops without the use of synthetic based fertilisers and conventional pesticides, there is a lot of speculation amongst consumers on whether a product is really organic or not, asserts Ronald. ‘Many are unclear what it really means while there are others who look at it as a marketing ploy. By following a certification system that verifies, inspects, and maintains record of practices and procedures, we are not only guaranteeing that this farm complies with the required regulations, but also instilling confidence in our consumers that the produce they pick here at the farm or at the outlets we retail are 100 per cent organic.’
Products sold with labels such as free-range, natural and locally grown do not necessarily have to be organic, he informs us. Neither are genetically modified organisms allowed on a certified organic farm. ‘We also rely on balanced agricultural principles like crop rotation, organic waste for manure and biological pest control to take care of our crops,’ he explains.
It is to the greenhouses that we make our way while Ronald cautions that it is not always open to the visitors so as to eliminate risks arising due to infiltrations of viruses, pests and other crop infections. ‘Pest management is vital to keeping greenhouse plants healthy,’ he says, ushering us into a fairly large climate-controlled space where deep orange, yellow, red, green and black bell peppers in varying stages of growth hang from every sapling planted there.
‘Some vegetables such as capsicum, cucumber, beans and tomato grow better in protected environments such as greenhouses where the cool air keeps temperatures well below 30 degrees which is essential for their healthy growth,’ he explains as we make our way to the area where cucumbers are grown. We feast our eyes on a sea of sunny yellow flowers and admire the fruits developing with every pollinated flower. The somewhat triangular-shaped leaves, though, feel rough and prickly to the touch.
The humble cucumber, that is generally dipped, doused or dunked in salads and dressings, is harvested throughout the year, explains Ronald, as he plucks out a couple of juicy cucumbers from the vine. We sink our teeth into the waxy tender skin and savour its crispy, crunchy freshness. ‘Cucumbers are grown all over the UAE as it can withstand excessive heat. We pick them while they are still slightly immature — they are full of flavour at this stage of growth and contain no seeds.’
Ronald shows us rows of trays planted with saplings in its tiny cube-shaped receptacles, ready to be implanted into the soil as soon as they are well-rooted. It takes only 3 to 4 days for cucumber seeds to germinate in the trays, and it is transplanted into the firm soil after 8 to 10 days. The first harvest is ready within just 30 days and a single plant yields 900g to 1kg of cucumbers at a time, he adds.
Pointing to sprouts of romaine lettuce, butterhead lettuce and papayas, he explains that one of the chief advantages of ‘growing crops in a greenhouse is that it allows us to extend the growing season and plant a wider variety of vegetables.’
We visit other greenhouses too where chillies and tomatoes in a varied range of colours are also grown. It is in the open fields that Ronald shows us the rows of freshly planted white and red potatoes that, he says, would be ready for harvest by end of January. The crops are planted directly in the sandy soil, he explains, which is then enriched with poultry manure and organic compost to ensure healthy and productive growth.
The farm runs on drip irrigation to both conserve water and improve the soil’s ability to retain moisture leading to higher yields, he informs us.
We then head to the compost area where we notice a large pile of shrivelled vegetables and wilted leaves. ‘All crop left overs, including plant cuttings and discarded vegetables are turned to organic compost,’ he explains. ‘Once it is broken down into small particles, it is turned every four days for aeration and left to decompose in the open air for several weeks or months. This organic matter conditions the sandy soil, helps retain moisture and is extremely nutrient-rich.’
As we walk beside beds of coriander, parsley, mint and rucola, we notice that the crowd at the farm has swelled. One visitor checks the bright green corn husk before breaking it off from the stalk while another cuts a firm and shiny eggplant close to the stem with a small knife. Fresh stalks of spring onion can be seen peeping out from almost all the bags while there are many who are picking the tender leaves and pods off the drumstick (moringa) tree — a trending superfood at the moment.
Eight-year-old Lilia has come specifically to see the goats, she says, as she feeds them fresh corn leaves plucked from the field nearby. There are around 15 sheep and 30 goats including kids in the fenced-in pen and Lilia gently strokes and rubs the belly of a mother goat through the barrier.
We make our way through lush lime trees — not in season at the moment — and pass by the pigeon coop to venture out further into the farm where all at once the sight of light green fernlike fronds perks our interest. ‘This aromatic plant is the fennel that adds both flavour and layers of complexity to any dish,’ explains Ronald. ‘It takes around 8 to 10 weeks to produce a good-size bulb — which is what most people use, although the entire plant is edible.’
Alongside this green patch are rows of yet another superfood — kale and curly kale. Closely related to the cabbage family, their broad deep green leaves with curly edges are packed with proteins, minerals and vitamins. The white stemmed bok choy with their unblemished dark green leaf blades also pack a nutritional punch, he adds. ‘Popularly known as Chinese cabbage, both leaves and stems are edible.’
Yonder is a patch of Brussels sprouts which, explains Ronald, has been planted as a trial run. ‘We frequently experiment with growing different types of vegetables to know what will work here and what will not. One of the main challenges we face on the farm is to make available different types of produce for our customers throughout the harvest season. We field test various crops to increase the diversity within the farm and to also identify what is suited for the hot climate and saline soil conditions in the region.’
Nearby, nestled amid tangled vines and underneath a canopy of large, dark green leaves are pumpkins of varied shapes and sizes, ripe and waiting to be picked and transformed into a nourishing soup or pie. The butternut squashes, marrow and celery are also ready to be snapped up, as are the different varieties of courgette. It is here that we meet Olivia, who is almost 6, and her two and a half-year-old brother Harry, searching for courgettes in the open field. ‘This is one of their favourite vegetables, and they love to eat what they pick at the farm,‘ says their father, Steve. His wife, Beth, adds, ‘Apart from getting them outdoors, visiting the farm also gets them involved in the whole process of making a healthy meal.’
When we move further out into the okra field, Ronald warns against walking through the crop. ‘You need to wear long sleeves and use gloves to harvest the pods as the tiny hairs on the plant can cause itching or irritate your skin.’
The cauliflower, broccoli, and cabbage varieties at the farm still require more time for harvesting.
At the cash counter near the entrance, we notice that customers are adding more vegetables to their bags, apart from the ones they have picked. There are colourful okras and bell peppers and white, red and orange tender carrots with fluffy bright green tops. Eggs from the nearby hen coop are also available as are dates from the palms at the farm, and honey collected from its apiary.
Joshua, who has come in with his wife Ginger, son Jonah and two-year-old baby, says green beans and tomatoes are their all-time favourites at the farm. ‘We are regulars here; it’s a great way to spend time amid nature with the kids. More importantly, this is where they can learn and see for themselves where their food comes from. It is an important life lesson as they get to see the hard work and effort that goes into creating the food they eat every day.”
Jonah, he adds, enjoys picking his own choice of veggies and joins the family in the kitchen while preparing the dishes. ‘We always pick something we haven’t tried before, and experiment with new recipes. Visiting a farm and picking the fresh produce motivates you to eat a diverse range of vegetables.’
For Rana, a mum of a 7-year-old boy and 4-year-old girl, spending time on the farm with her children is a great way ‘to teach them to appreciate the gift of food especially as they see firsthand the amount of work that goes into growing food. My kids love to eat what they have picked — so now there is greater variety in their food choices for which I am grateful!’
Being on the farm also makes them more aware of nature, she adds. ‘Every time we come here, it is a journey of exploration both for the kids and me.’
Open farm days at Emirates Bio Farm
• With over 55 varieties of vegetables and fruits, and 8,000 certified eggs distributed daily, Emirates Bio Farm, located on the Dubai-Al Ain highway in Al Shuwaib, is undoubtedly the largest private organic farm in the UAE.
• Spread out on a 250,000 sqm facility, it welcomes visitors every Friday and Saturday from November to March. According to Yazen Al Kodmani, operation manager, the farm utilises three types of farming: open field, shade nets and greenhouses, and has a highly efficient sorting, packing, storage and distribution system that sees 90 per cent of its products go from field to shelf in less than 24 hours.
• Facilities here include a farm shop, meeting room, outside dining/gathering area, experience centre, as well as an Arabian tent overlooking the farm and open desert dunes. Visitors can participate in tractor tours that run hourly. Emirates Bio Farm is also a perfect location for yoga, meditation and wellness-based activities, he adds.
• Call 03 783 8422 for more information or to host a corporate event which includes a customised set of activities and meals made with the farm produce.
Know before you go
• There are no signposts leading up to the farm, so relying on your GPS is the best bet.
• Farm visits are scheduled every Saturday until first week of May.
• Wear closed shoes preferably to avoid soil and dust on your feet.