As we leave the outskirts of Dubai and head straight on the busy thoroughfare leading to Al Ain, the shift in the landscape becomes immediately evident. Clusters of buildings that had marked the skyline soon give way to the majestic sight of the vast expanse of desert with palm groves and signs of vegetation in the far distance. But the scenic drama really unfolds when you turn off the highway and into the winding roads of Al Shuwaib, where signs of life spring up in the most unexpected manner – a car that whizzes past seemingly out of the blue; old, standalone grocery stores in the middle of nowhere, and with not a soul in sight.
Here, the lush green of the leafy palm trees are a brighter hue and we brace ourselves for more spectacular sights as we turn around a bend and a large board announces the path to our destination – Emirates Bio Farm.
Over the phone a few days earlier, Yazen Al Kodmani, operations manager at the farm, had spoken enthusiastically of his 250,000 sqm facility, which, he said, was the largest private organic farm in the UAE growing more than 60 varieties of crops and producing upwards of 8,000 eggs daily for the local markets. Expecting to see a swathe of green, we – photographer Stefan and I – are surprised instead to find russet-coloured dunes towering over us in what appear to be miles of undulating sandy stretches. It’s a stunning sight, no doubt, but a far cry from the mental image we had of the farm.
But we continue to snake our way along the sinuous curves of the road, soaking in the sight of the reddish hues stretched before us, now tinged with a hint of glimmer as it catches the light of the morning sun. There are some signs of green – a cluster of trees, some grass-tufted mounds, and no more. We spot an odd building or two, some camels, and begin to wonder if we have unwittingly trespassed on to a private property.
Just as we decide to head back, a glorious vision looms into view. A massive lush patch of greenery peeps out like a hidden paradise from deep within the sandy valleys. We gaze in fascination at the verdant land that stands in stark contrast to the spartan sandscape surrounding it, with towering dark green trees fencing its outskirts. We arrive at our destination and hear the bleat of goats and the happy voices of children even before we make our way inside.
The place is already teeming with parents and young kids, some of them feeding fresh grass to the goats while the others are seated around the wooden tables arranged in the outdoor gazebo. Some of the younger ones have made a beeline to the oversized play tractor out in the open.
We are all here at the Emirates Bio Farm to see organic farming in action and go on a tractor tour around the farm to discover how amazing organic produce is grown in the middle of the desert.
Shortly before 10am, we make our way to the repurposed tractors, where we are joined by families with kids. The excitement is palpable, even though many of them have already been on the trip before. A young father says, ‘My kids, aged eight and five, enjoy coming out here. It is a hands-on learning experience for them; every time they learn something new. As a family, this is one of our favourite outdoor pastimes too, to be amid nature and gain an increased appreciation of where our food comes from.’
Megan Swanepoel, events coordinator at Emirates Bio Farm, leads the tour, and it is when the tractor inches along a few metres that we begin to see how extensive the farm is. Rows of crops are neatly laid out on both sides of the path in all shades of green as far as the eye can see. Some are growing so close to the ground; others are rising tall.
With the backdrop of the Hajjar mountains in the far horizon, the gentle breeze and the sounds of birds in the distance, the sense of serenity and calm that envelops the farm is at once soothing and invigorating.
Our first stop is just a few hundred metres away, and Megan assembles the group of around 60, adults and kids included, around the edge of a low-lying crop. Exuberant and vivacious, her spot-on information nuggets laced with witty remarks endear her instantly to the young ones. She tells us that the acres of farmland we see before us are spread over 250,000 sqm but occupies only one-fourth of the 1 million sqm facility. ‘We are developing the remaining 75 per cent that will also incorporate organic and sustainable farming methods,’ she says, ‘as our focus stems from a love for nutritious food, a healthy lifestyle and a hearty ecosystem.’
When she throws open the question, what is organic farming, children chip in with responses that being organic is about being chemicals- and pesticides-free. Organic farming also implies absence of the use of herbicides which, she describes, are used to kill unwanted plants or weeds.
Uninvited guests such as insects can infest crops, reduce yields and lower production, she adds, and points to the crops around us, asking how we thought these are kept so nourished and healthy, without any form of chemical intervention. ‘The farm uses a system of intercropping or crop separation that involves simultaneous cultivation of two or more crops on the same field to keep unwanted pests at bay,’ she explains. ‘So, between rows of eggplant, you will find alternate rows of celery and onions. As each crop has different pests, this is an efficient way to keep pests away from the main crop.
‘Who likes sweet corn?’ asks Megan. Several hands go up.
‘On this farm, everything likes sweet corn; from insects to worms to birds to everything. So how do we get them to stop eating sweet corn?’ she questions, adding, ‘Tell me, what is the opposite of sweet?’
The children chime in: sour, bitter, spicy, salty.
‘In between the sweet corn we need to plant one of the four crops that are not sweet. Hence, we plant radish, rocket, fennel, coriander, parsley and celery to stop the insects from getting to the sweet corn.
‘Crop rotation, companion planting, and increasing the varieties grown successfully encourages beneficial microorganisms and interrupts pest reproduction cycles,’ she adds.
The farm also makes use of natural techniques to manage pests, explains Megan, describing how the leaves of the neem tree are placed in big buckets of water and allowed to sit for hours in the sun before being sprayed on vegetables. ‘The bitterness of the neem leaves that coat the crops deter insects from preying on them,’ she says, adding that ‘the neem tree is so important to us on this farm, we have 2,000 growing here!’
Apart from open field farming, the farm also uses shade nets and greenhouses to ensure produce throughout the year. Shade nets also help solve a multitude of gardening problems. ‘The physical barrier protects plants from insects, and even from too-strong sun in the summertime,’ she explains. ‘The plants grow well under protection and can be uncovered once they are strong enough to survive.’
Megan then calls on the children to pick up some sand from the ground. They eagerly scoop up the wet mud in the palms of their tiny hands. She explains that it contains three very special ingredients to build up the vitality of the soil for better growth of plants. ‘One ingredient is the desert sand that we see all around us and the second is compost, or matter made from waste of vegetables.’
When she reveals that the third ingredient is chicken poop, the little ones scream in disgust, throwing off the sandy soil from their hands. Megan reassures them that it is composted manure and safe to touch. ‘We have 1,500 chickens on this farm and every single day, in addition to manure, those chickens give us between 8 to 10,000 eggs.’
As we look around for chicken coops, Megan informs us that the chickens are raised in a secluded area without the use of antibiotics, hormones or other chemical additives. ‘Our chickens are free range and organic, and vegetarian-fed in compliance with international standards.’
Pulling up a bunch of carrots from the field, Megan announces that it is harvest time, much to the delight of the entire group. The children are happy to see a vegetable they are so familiar with spring up from below the ground, all covered in soil. She points out its stem and leaves and tells the kids: ‘Carrots are like people. Some are fat and some are thin; some are tall, some are short; some are weird looking, some are not. Whatever carrot you pick today, that’s your destiny – you cannot put it back in the ground!’
Advising us to pull the whole stem out of the ground, she says we can harvest only two or three carrots each, and goes on to set some ground rules. ‘See the mounds that the vegetables are on? This is the home of the vegetables; do not step on them, stay in the middle. And don’t harvest anything you are not supposed to.’
This is surely the most fun part of the tour, and as kids and parents go scurrying between the rows of crops, there are sudden squeals of delight as each one shows what they have just picked. Just as Megan said, not all are of uniform shape and size like the ones we see on supermarket shelves. The children compare what they have picked and are eager to harvest more when Megan announces that it is time to get back on the tractor.
At our next stop, she leads us straight to another row of crops, and we guess correctly that what is growing ahead of us is kale. ‘Kale is one of the most nutrient-dense plant foods we eat today,’ says Megan. ‘It is a member of the cabbage family and can have green or purple leaves that are either smooth or curly. What we have here is the curly kale, which is the most common type.
‘Today we call it a super healthy green, but did you know that 10 to 15 years ago, kale was used to feed cattle, and goats and sheep?’ asks Megan. It is time for some harvesting again.
‘How do you harvest kale? Do you pull it out of the ground like a carrot?’
NO, screams everyone.
‘Do you dig it out like a potato?’
NO, comes the response again.
‘You just break it off its stem, tap tap tap on your hand, and eat it straight away,’ she announces, proceeding to chomp through the fresh kale she has just plucked. ‘A word of caution: only two leaves per person!’
At our next stop, the children are stumped when Megan asks them to identify the plant growing in front of us. It has a bountiful bunch of dark green leaves with red veins running through its underside, and a fleshy red stem. They are excited to discover that it is the beetroot! ‘The leafy tops and stems are delicious, and can be cooked or added raw in salads,’ she tells us.
How do you know when a beetroot is ready to harvest? ‘It comes out of the ground, and you can see the size of its head. Your job today is to find the biggest one, and pick only one,’ she urges.
Armed with our day’s harvest, it is to the green house that we proceed next, where Megan advises us to refrain from going anywhere near the plants. ‘A greenhouse is a special place to grow plants where the amount of light, temperature and moisture received are controlled, allowing for year-round growth,’ she explains.
It is here, as everyone stops to admire the bunches of tomatoes of all sizes and shapes waiting to ripen, that Megan pops the age-old question: is the tomato a fruit or vegetable? A little boy answers that it is a fruit because it has seeds.
‘If we agree that everything with seeds inside is a fruit, what about eggplant, cucumber, zucchini, chilli, okra, pumpkin, capsicum,’ asks Megan. ‘Technically, anything that has seeds inside and comes from a flower is a fruit, and the only reason why we know it differently is because nutritionally, anything that is sweet is today termed a fruit and whatever is savoury, is referred to as a vegetable.’
And so, if olive is a fruit, is olive oil a fruit juice? What about coffee, which comes from the coffee bean? ‘Yes,’ answers Megan, ‘and so is almond oil – in botanical terms, but whatever you choose to call it, just remember that these are all nutritious, healthy and good for you.’
All too soon our educational adventure comes to an end and we spread out again into the gazebo, goat pen, and play area. Many make their way to the market area where fresh produce handpicked from the farm is being sold, including a range of ‘ugly’ vegetables that will not be sold at the market because of markings on their skin. These are available at half price.
Some head out to the ‘Farm to Jar’ workshop, where a nutritionist explores the age-old fermentation technique that is gut healthy and uses fresh organic cabbage from the farm to make kimchi and sauerkraut.
It is at the Farmer’s Table restaurant – an agrarian kitchen serving sustainable and nutritious organic food – that we meet operations manager Yazen, who informs us that the restaurant only uses what is in season and so the menu changes weekly depending on what is harvested at the farm. ‘It is a farm to table concept offering low-carbon footprint meals – these vegetables do not have to travel miles or endure any form of packaging. We use all parts of the vegetable, from root to stem, and make pickles and jams, as we strive for zero waste.’
Emirates Bio Farm grows around 60 major crops, and different varieties of each crop are also grown, he says. ‘For instance, we have 20 varieties of eggplant itself. We introduce new crops each year, and plan to grow sage, marjoram, asparagus, mustard and artichoke very soon.
‘Ninety per cent of our products make their way into supermarkets within 24 hours of being harvested,’ he adds.
Amongst fruits, the farm currently grows watermelon and plans to cultivate figs, pomegranate, lemon, mango and banana. Plans are also afoot to commence aquaculture soon.
‘But for now, our aim is to preserve the ecosystem of the desert and continue to provide genuine, organic food and services for the conscious and healthy living here in the UAE,’ says Yazen.
Know before you go
Tractor tour: Dh35 per person; no prior reservation required
Other visitor facilities are open to all.
Monday to Saturday: 8am to 5pm. Closed on Sundays
Location: Al Shuwaib, Al Ain
To discover details of workshops and events, for school trips, and to host private or corporate events, email: email@example.com or call 055 385 7052.
Emirates Bio Farm is holding the first annual Organic Festival in the UAE. The event ends February 22. Head there for curated activities including educational, fun and immersive experiences, and discover what it means to be organic and sustainable in the UAE.