The Spinneys UAE Farmers Club is devoted to driving and developing better sustainable farming production standards in the UAE. It comprises eight growers and producers, four of whom hold top-notch organic certifications. One such member is Sheikha Al Muhairy, who founded Organic Oasis – where we source our watermelons and cucumbers. Read more about her story below.
What inspired you to farm in the desert? There were multiple factors. Firstly, I am a strong health advocate and I have always been careful about what types of food I eat. In 2014 there was a lot of hype around the organic movement, both internationally and here in the UAE. I wanted to see where and how this type of farming without any fertilisers was being done. I wanted to find out what organic, clean eating really means. That’s when I began my research and I realised there were a lot of local farmers who had been in the industry for many, many years. However, many of them did not have the right knowledge to get into the market and promote a farm-to-table concept, like in Europe or the US. I decided that we have the talent, and I have the resources to actually do this on my own to the best of my capacity. I also saw a bigger picture of improving the farming industry and efficiency of food scarcity issues in the region, as well as promoting better eating habits.
How did you acquire your land, and where did you begin? Organic Oasis is actually a collection of three farms set on family owned property that had not been utilised for 20 years. I took it as a testing ground and thought ‘why don’t we try this and see.’ When I first started, I reached out to existing farmers who helped mentor me and my team.
What is your current day-to-day involvement on the farms? I don’t actually do the farming. We have a team of around 21 people, including farmers, supervisors and a specialised agricultural engineer. I get involved at the beginning and end of each season with setting up the plans, monitoring our processes, reviewing what the team has been doing, mentoring them and renewing our certifications.
Your farm has obtained three types of certifications: UAE Organic; USDA­ Organic; and EU Organic from BCS Öko-Garantie GmbH. Why is international accreditation important to you?
Being recognised by the US and EU gives customers more confidence, as many of them can relate to these types of certifications. It also allows us future opportunities to expand the brand and take UAE-based products beyond our borders.
What does the certification process involve?
Everything we do on a daily basis is monitored throughout the year to ensure organic standards are maintained. There’s a lot of documentation and our practices need to be justified. Our seeds, feed, fertilisers and irrigation systems are analysed; the way we cultivate, harvest and even deliver the produce to the client is scrutinised and we’re marked on how much we sell against how much we produce.
What is it like farming in the UAE and what methods do you employ? Our country has one of the longest growing seasons in the world as we have more sun than frost. You can start prepping the ground in July and begin with the summer crops such as watermelons or eggplants in August. The season extends up until April or June, but this depends on the setup of each farm and their greenhouses. We employ modern organic techniques and use natural ingredients such as chicken manure to feed the soil, and a dry fish/tea mix, which can increase the nitrogen levels in plants. The certifying bodies control the types of products that can be used as no [man-made] chemicals are allowed. We also deploy ground water, rather than using desalinated water.
What challenges do you face? The biggest one is always going to be about prices that clients are willing to pay. Many people don’t understand the time and costs involved in running an organic farm. Conventional methods allow for higher production volumes over shorter periods, which means product prices can be cheaper. A lot of buyers are always on the hunt for a bargain, and only a few clients such as Spinneys actually understand and respect the organic process, and the effort that goes into growing, harvesting and selling each crop.
You actively encourage corporate, school and social visits to the farm. Why is transparency and education significant to you?
One of the most important things for me is educating children about how fruits and vegetables grow, and how animals are raised – many young people think that chickens come out of a bag. Also, people need to interact and engage with nature – especially in an urban setting like Dubai where most of the community lives in apartments or houses with no garden. There is the assumption that there is no nutrition in the arid desert grounds. One needs to understand the importance of land before understanding how products grow, and it can give us so much if we actually take care of it..
MEET MORE MEMBERS
Only farmers and growers who meet our guidelines for quality, freshness, food security and sustainability are invited to the club. Local organic producers are required to be accredited by at least one international awarding body, as well as the UAE’s own Emirates Authority For Standardization and Metrology (ESMA). In addition to Organic Oasis, our members include:
Al Rawafed Agriculture Organic Farm
Located just 45 minutes away from downtown Abu Dhabi, this farm is one of the biggest sources of organic products in the UAE. It’s certified by ESMA, Europe’s Istituto Certificazione Etica e Ambientale (ICEA) and Bureau Veritas. Stock up on spinneysFood organic figs, tomatoes, capsicums, cherry tomatoes, mini peppers, mint, coriander and parsley, all of which are obtained from here.
Established in 2007, Dar al-Fateh Group grows a variety of premium vegetables on its farms in Al Ain and Liwa. The list of produce we source from the group includes organic marrows, green beans, eggplants, cabbages and green chillies.
Integrated Green Resources UAE (IGR)
IGR has been producing and distributing organic vegetables since 2008. Its main farms are located in Al Rahba and Al Khawaneej, where both open-air farming and greenhouse farming is practiced. We can’t get enough of its spicy red chillies.