The Life: Elena Kinane, an organic farmer in Dubai, talks about the hurdles of organic farming in the UAE.
Organic produce straight from the UAE's greenest of farms
For Elena Kinane, as for so many local farmers, winter is the busiest time of the year.
"We need to step up the volume during the winter months to pay for the hotter season when output is low," said the owner of Greenheart Organic Farms (www.greenheartuae.com)
A 38-year-old German-Armenian who came to the UAE 17 years ago, Ms Kinane likes to get dirt under her nails.
"My great-aunt had an organic patch in Bavaria and she taught me the basics," she said. "I used to stick my finger in the soil and put in the seeds that were handed down to her by her relatives or she exchanged with neighbours."
Ms Kinane's farm is among a handful of organic farms in the UAE. From producing their own compost for use as fertiliser, to harvesting and packaging in an environmentally friendly way, her organic farms have their hands full throughout the year. But the time-consuming method of producing the crop tests the patience of both farmers and investors.
The Emirates Authority for Standardization and Metrology, which started certifying organic farms last August, has since certified 28 such farms. This compares with the total of about 35,700 farms in the country, according to the Ministry of Environment and Water.
Greenheart is not the first organic farm venture for Ms Kinane. She had teamed up with an Emirati landowner in 2008.
But the slow process of turning a farm organic also means less yield in the first few years, which proved a hurdle for the landowner. A shop selling the farm produce ran for four months in Dubai, and with that the project closed in July 2010.
In her latest project, Ms Kinane has involved four farmers, in Sharjah, Dubai and Ras Al Khaimah. The farms, of about 25,000 to 35,000 square metres each, are scattered.
"It is better to have it in different areas because soil is different in different areas," she explained.
Some of the farms were already set up, and some she and her team started from scratch.
This time she has put in Dh500,000 (US$136,121) of her money into the project.
"There is a lot of pressure and they want a return very quickly from the start," Ms Kinane said of investors.
Greenheart started converting the farmland, which is mostly sandy, about two years ago.
It started retailing in January last year, although for the first six months it was mainly selling to family and friends.
Now it cannot produce enough.
It has 1,800 buyers, all of whom are in Dubai. These include individuals and businesses such as N_K_D Pizza, Dinner Time Enterprises and Green League, Unifrutti's line of organic produce.
The biggest challenge the team faces is to gather enough manure and produce sufficient compost.
"We dig holes, put leftovers of food, branches and leaves, leftover crops, and dark animal manure, and the whole process takes three to six months," Ms Kinane said.
Her day starts at 6am on Thursdays, the harvest day. She and her team harvest and deliver the same day from the farms. And there are several boxes to fill, some with as little as 100 grams of produce.
The slow growing process and the low yield to avoid storing vegetables to preserve freshness mean prices are high and the profit margin is low.
"We charge Dh15 per kilogramme of cucumber, which is one of the most grown produce in the UAE, and it costs us Dh10 to Dh12 a kilo to grow them," Ms Kinane said.
The market price of non-organic cucumbers is about Dh2 per kilo, giving the organic variety tough competition.
Her heirloom tomatoes sell at Dh25 to Dh27 a kilo.
Ms Kinane and her team are particular about the seeds.
"You take it from the flowers," she said. At the end of each harvest cycle, she dries the seeds and puts them in a fridge for the next year. She also works with a couple of independent seed growers in Mexico and Germany who send her seeds.
"We are just launching two new salads with N_K_D that I designed around our produce," she said. "One is called Arabic Fusion Salad and the other one is a Superfoods Salad."