x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Lush harvest from local tropical farm

An organic farm grows several non-native plants in Abu Dhabi greenhouses.

Pineapples (above), papayas and passion fruit grow at the Abu Dhabi Organic Farm. Its other crops include citrus fruit, mulberries, strawberries and figs.
Pineapples (above), papayas and passion fruit grow at the Abu Dhabi Organic Farm. Its other crops include citrus fruit, mulberries, strawberries and figs.

As you watch the passion fruit flowers open their bright purple petals, you might think you were standing in a thick, luscious rainforest.

But these plants are growing in a greenhouse 15km from the Abu Dhabi airport, at the Abu Dhabi Organic farm. They are "the prettiest flowers you will see," said Khalid al Shamsi, who runs the farm.

The 55-hectare farm has been a decade in the making. Though the operation focuses on growing salad vegetables, it also produces citrus, mulberry, strawberries and figs. It has 1.5 hectares of greenhouses, 1,200 date trees, a forest with 12 indigenous tree species, an oasis and a variety of livestock.

A few of the greenhouses are dedicated to the farm's 500 papaya plants and 1,000 pineapple trees, as well as crops of passion fruit and baby bananas.

According to Mr al Shamsi, the country's hot, sunny temperature combined with the farm's water-conserving irrigation techniques means that the various equatorial plants are able to grow and prosper in the desert.

Some of the fruits are well suited to the UAE's climate. Pineapples are drought-tolerant and manage elsewhere to produce fruit with little rain. Papayas need to grow in light, well-drained soil, and can easily be killed if subjected to excess moisture.

To ensure that the plants are not over-watered, the organic farm has installed a drip irrigation system, a network of plastic pipes that release precise amounts of water through hundreds of pin-sized holes.

The method greatly reduces the need for water - a useful property in the parched Emirates.

The farm imported seeds from the tropics and planted them in the UAE's salty, sandy soil. Then workers collected and replanted seeds from the individual plants that had managed to grow well.

Each season, this artificial selection resulted in plants better adjusted to the climate and soil, and so bearing more fruit.

The adaptation phase continues for years, until eventually "if you bring [the plants] back to their country of origin, they won't grow as well," said Mr al Shamsi.

He added that start-up organic farms can save years of development by buying seeds that are pre-adapted to the climate.

Farms that want to convert to organic spend from three to five years purging their fields of non-organic plants and their offspring. To be called organic, the seeds must be free of genetic modifications or treatment.

An important consideration in the quality of the crop is the timing of planting. Too early in the autumn and the cool weather will cause the trees to produce less fruit. Too late, and the heat will limit growth. The Organic Farm has spent years playing with the planting schedule to find the best timing for each crop.

The establishment became the first internationally certified farm in 2007. This means it adheres to rules for organic production set by Italy's Ethical and Environmental Certification Institute (ICEA). Every three months the operation is visited by international inspectors.

The farm's shop, also certified by the institute, will sell produce from any internationally certified organic farmer that wants to supply it.

The Ministry of Environment and Water plans to convert 33 farms to organic production by the end of this year. It offers its own certification, but there is little follow-up inspection or testing to ensure that organic practices are kept up.

Maintaining organic standards is not just about avoiding chemicals in fertilisers and pesticides. Cars are banned within the Abu Dhabi Organic Farm's boundaries, with farm workers and visitors using bicycles and donkey carts instead. Even the delivery lorries run on natural gas.

Those lorries do not have far to go. In nearby Mushrif, the farm also operates Mazaraa, an organic fruit and vegetable shop. Though the shop is not yet officially open, it is already certified by the ICEA, and stocks organic products from the farm and from all over the world.

For vegetables, what can be grown locally should be provided fresh each day, Mr al Shamsi said.

The farm grows only things that can accommodate the climate. That, Mr al Shamsi accepts, means that some items, such as passion fruit, will be seasonal.

"Passion fruit fruits once a year. In the meantime we trim off the branches to reduce water waste."



Tempted to try to grow some of those passion fruit flowers at home?

You can use any store-bought fruit to collect seed, but the seeds of a locally grown one will be better suited to the climate.

Select a sunny but sheltered spot – tropical fruits are very susceptible to shade and frost.

The plants need healthy soil with a lot of organic matter. The best bet is to plant them in a half-metre-wide pot filled with a mixture of compost and soil.

Scoop half a dozen seeds out of a fruit and plant them. They will germinate in 10-20 days.

Place them near a trellis or fence for the vines to climb.

Passion fruit need a steady supply of water that can drain from the pot, so as to not rot the roots.

Spread a thick layer of mulch over the soil to protect the roots from sunlight.

Prune the vines in spring, to encourage new fruiting wood and to reduce the amount of water needed.

* Megan Detrie