Desert Farming Secrets Unveiled

How did the UAE’s agricultural industry evolve over time?

Although the United Arab Emirates has a farming tradition that stretches back into ancient history, the modern agriculture industry in the UAE has evolved rapidly since 1971. That was when Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan took steps to foster modern irrigation methods in place of the traditional but wasteful “flood irrigation” system in use prior to 1971. From the four thousand farms operating in the country in that year, the industry bloomed to encompass more than 35,000 farms today. Farmers in the United Arab Emirates face unique challenges because of the country’s soil situation. The UAE’s sweet sands require special skill to aerate, drain, and provide plant nourishment. On the other hand, UAE farmers can take advantage of a longer growing season than their European peers.


How does organic farming work?

Organic food is, stated simply, produce that is generated through an all-natural farming and processing system. Inorganic fertilizers and synthetic chemicals are eschewed at every stage of production. None of the plants grown can be subjected to genetic modification. “Unnatural” techniques such as irradiation are excluded from the production chain. Certain livestock and animal products need special handling to qualify as organic. Organic eggs, for instance, have to come from free-range hens fed a non-GMO organic diet, rather than birds raised in battery farms.


How are vegetables raised successfully in the UAE’s nutrient-poor soil?

In desert farming, the first great challenge for farmers is creating their own living soil from scratch. This needs to provide a hospitable environment, beneficial microorganisms, and nutrients for the plants that will be grown. Soil building is a tricky process that demands considerable expertise.

Compost, manure, and mineral nutrients are worked into the sweet sand with every grow cycle to maintain and enhance the soil’s agricultural value. Crop rotation is also used to safeguard the health of the UAE’s farming soil. By planting a shifting variety of crops on a given field, each of which has different nutritional requirements, nutrient depletion becomes less of a problem and unwanted pests and plant diseases are easier to prevent.


What steps are used to prevent diseases and pests?

Besides the crop rotation described above, we also use “polyculture” – that is, growing multiple crops on one parcel of land – to keep them healthy. Polyculture fosters biodiversity to fight pests and diseases. This often takes the form of “companion planting,” where multiple crops are selected and planted together so that they benefit each other. The right combinations can help discourage pests, encourage pollination, boost nutrient absorption, and be of other use in maximizing the health and productivity of our farmland. As a basic example, we might pair tall-growing crops along with another plant that thrives in the shade they create. Intercropping herbs also helps cut down on pests and promote crop strength.


Where do you get your compost?

We create our own “compost tea” by combining waste plant material with leftover fish parts. Besides enriching the soil with much-needed nutrients, this mixture also serves as a form of pest control. Our fields also employ heat-treated animal manure that has been composted for roughly six months prior to use. Manure is an excellent additive for improving the structure of our soil, making it capable of holding more nutrients and moisture for longer periods of time and promoting the development of a healthy microorganism environment.


What is the UAE’s primary farming season?

Plant seeding typically starts around the middle of August, with harvesting operations occurring from mid-September through the end of June. The summer heat between the months of May to September is too harsh for most commercial produce, but we do grow some crops in this period using greenhouses cooled by the “fan and pad” process. This allows us to cultivate and sell products like cucumbers in every part of the year.


What sorts of produce do you grow?

We’re currently producing about 40 different strains of vegetable crops and a half-dozen varieties of fruit.


Where do you get your seeds? Are they organically sourced?

We strive to be as self-sufficient as possible by harvesting our own seeds each season. When additional seed is needed, we rely on a global network of certified suppliers to provide us with untreated organic seeds. Our organic seed sourcing is audited on an annual basis to confirm that we meet both UAE and EU obligations for organic produce. Using our own seeds as much as possible helps our crops adapt to the local climate in the long term. This translates into higher yields and better taste.


How are you organic measures verified?

We seek certification from EU Organic, GlobalGAP, and UAE Organic every year.


What’s the difference between “heirloom” and “hybrid” vegetables?

Heirloom crops come from open-pollinated seeds that are saved and isolated from generation to generation. In contrast, hybrid seeds come from crossing different strains of plant to strengthen traits that are aesthetically or commercially valuable. Hybrids are often more vigorous and better able to resist diseases and pests. Hybrid seeds are the order of the day in conventional industrial-scale agriculture, but small organic farms do not rely on them so extensively. When compared to natural seeds, hybrids lack the ability to reproduce and make their farmers reliant on the companies that sell them.


Where do you get the water used in irrigation? Do you take any steps to conserve water supplies?

We use desalinized reverse osmosis water distributed and monitored by the local municipality. Reverse osmosis is the most energy-efficient desalinization option available to us. In order to minimize our usage, we use “drip irrigation” to water most of our crops. Additionally, we’ve found that acclimatized crops we grow from our own seeds tend to require less water than foreign strains. Our efforts to build our soil so that it retains more moisture also help conserve water. Intercropping together plants that have deep and shallow roots is another strategy we employ to get the most out of the water we put into our soil.


Does organic farming drive up prices?

Organic produce does end up costing more than conventional plants grown via industrial farming. The maturation of organic plants takes longer because chemical-free and natural nutrients have slower uptake and the overall crop yields are also lower.

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