ABU DHABI // More than 20 schoolgirls crowded around a bird pen at the edge of Abu Dhabi’s largest organic farm.
“Look, that pigeon has a mohawk,” one student shouts to her teacher over the cluster’s excited chatter.
The girls, ages 12 to 13, from Sheikh Zayed Private Academy, had come to the Abu Dhabi Organic Farm to learn about food, from chicken to cherry tomatoes.
“I’ve never been to a farm before,” says Rant, who adds that she “kind of” likes vegetables. “It’s really interesting. I want to try more and see if the taste is different.”
Knowing how food is grown will encourage children to make healthier choices about what they eat, says Khaled al Shamsi, who runs the farm.
“I read a study where children in the UK were asked where milk comes from, and 60 per cent said it came from the supermarket,” he says. He hopes visits to the farm will change that perception. For instance, having fruit in the house is one thing, but “if kids are harvesting strawberries by themselves, they will eat it”.
Encouraging children to eat well has become a goal for educators and parents. One in eight children in the Emirates is obese, according to the United Nations. And this autumn, the Abu Dhabi Food
Control Authority ordered all schools, state and private, to stop selling junk food.
Nancy Bartlett, the girls’ teacher, says she addresses topics such as health and sustainability in her lessons.
The visit is “a fantastic experience that we can relate to back in the class; seeing the farm makes the lessons more real”, she says.
The farm has been a decade in the making. Now 55 hectares, the organic operation has 1.5 hectares of greenhouses, 1,200 date trees, 1,000 pineapple plants, a forest with 12 indigenous tree species, an oasis and a variety of livestock.
All of it is cared for in adherence with Italy’s Ethical and Environmental Certification Institute’s rules for organic production. Both the farm and Mazaraa, an organic fruit and vegetable shop in Al
Mushrif, Abu Dhabi, will be open by the end of the year. The shop is also certified by the institute.
The hope, according to Mr al Shamsi, is to provide people in the UAE with fresh, healthy produce at reasonable price.
The technology in organic farming is more similar to traditional farming than most people realise, he said. The farm controls pests using plants that have natural insecticides and by stocking ladybugs, which eat harmful insect populations. Peacocks can be found strutting among the farm’s poultry.
The birds “have sounds to warn off predators”, says Alaa, one of the students, referring to vegetable-eating pests.
Maintaining organic standards is not just about how the plants are treated. Cars are banned within the farm’s boundaries. Farmers and visitors use bicycles and petrol-free carriages. Even the delivery trucks run on natural gas. These measures, Mr al Shamsi says, help ensure the vegetables and fruits remain unpolluted.
The farm grows a variety of berries, citrus and tropical fruits. Already it supplies squash, sweet potatoes and courgettes to restaurants and hotels.
The farm will grow only as much as the market demands, Mr al Shamsi says, noting that only six of the 12 greenhouses are in use. “Otherwise it will go to waste,” he says.
To help to build that market, the farm will offer tours to students and the public once it opened.
Allowing people to visit the fields will build trust in the farm’s organic processes, which are absent from much of what is imported.
“Even at major supermarkets, you’re not 100 per cent sure” of how it is grown, he says.
On weekends, Mr al Shamsi would like to allow customers to pick vegetables themselves, for free. “Farmers have Fridays off, so there is double quantity on Saturdays,” Mr al Shamsi says. “It would go to waste – this creates a balance.”