Buying local is better for the environment – that’s a fact. Importing products, while often necessary in a certain climate, uses up vital resources like oil and gas, and contributes to the global problem of rising CO2 emissions. Without that extra transportation cost, local produce is lighter on your purse strings. We also believe that our customers should get the freshest produce and buying local ensures this; products are picked one day and in stores the next, ensuring quality and taste are as high as they can possibly be. Lastly, supporting local farmers has a knock-on effect for the local economy – if profit remains in the UAE, as a community we all benefit from this.
These are just a few of the reasons we created the Spinneys Farmers Club, of which there are three members. Elite Agro, a key player in this group, invited us to visit their farm. Here, we learned about their goals for the future, gained an insight into the intricacies of growing fruit and vegetables and ate a superb lunch made by Spinneys’ chef Mark Evans using produce picked that morning.
We sat down with Peter Ensor, the marketing and sales director for the food and agriculture cluster of Elite Agro to gain insight into the importance of supporting local produce and the company’s role in changing the face of farming in the UAE:
Q: Why do you feel it’s important to drive the improvement of farming standards across the UAE?
A: In the past UAE production has been very basic and over the last three to five years the government has wanted to progress our opportunities for food security. Because of that, the entire industry has an incentive to look for better, safer and more sustainable production and practices. We believe that in response to the government and consumers’ wishes, it’s an important thing to move forward on. There’s absolutely no reason why we should be continually importing products from the other side of the world when we can do just as good a job here.
Q: In that respect, why is it necessary to support local farmers?
A: Because the market drives whatever happens on the ground; if Spinneys, as a customer representing its shoppers, says ‘we want fresher products, we want to know where it comes from, we want to have some level of confidence about its credibility and whether it’s trustworthy’, then we respond to that. It’s really important that retailers as a whole support local producers because we’re all trying to do the right thing.
Q: How do you train your staff? Do they specialise in one element of the production process or do they change roles?
A: It’s mostly greenhouses on this farm and those jobs – harvesting and pruning – are interchangeable. People who work specifically on crop protection are more specialist and highly trained. We take pride in the training of our people because we need to make sure the job gets done properly, and have certifications from GLOBAL GAP that require training of the staff; workers are an important part of the production chain.
Q: You mentioned crop protection, what does that entail?
A: Crop protection can be anything really; pulling weeds out of the ground, monitoring pests on the leaves, looking at them through a microscope, deciding when you need to spray. The workers need to know about the safety of personal protection equipment, the chemicals that they’re using and the withholding periods between the time of spraying and the time of re-entry.
Q: What’s the most difficult product to produce?
A: At the moment we’re growing capsicum, cucumber, eggplant, sweet potatoes, potatoes and tomatoes and they’ve all got their own idiosyncrasies. It’s not so much how difficult the crops are, it’s how much time they take to grow. Tomatoes have the greatest time requirement (they take 11 months from seed to finished product and 34 hours from harvest to shelf) because they’re in the ground for 10-12 months; you’re continually working with them – we’re planting now and they will be pulled out this time next year.
Q: Out of all the products you grow, what’s your favourite and how would you use it?
A: I just love the eggplant for its visual appeal and the fact that you can grill it and put it into ratatouille. You’ve got that beautiful dark shiny purple-black colour. It’s a very versatile product and for the Middle East, a very popular one.
Q: What’s the difference between bell peppers and sweet peppers and are they grown differently?
A: The bell pepper refers to its shape; they’re basically the same thing with a slightly different name depending on where you come from. The other one that’s commonly found in the Middle East is the lamuyo, which is a long capsicum.
Q: What are your goals for 2017?
A: Increasing production. We’ve got a number of customers who are committing to 12 months’ supply of different products, Spinneys included, and that gives us confidence to invest more and expand. We’re trialing seedless watermelons and we’ve just signed an agreement with a blueberry breeder so we’re currently figuring out how to make that work – it’s an exciting prospect.
Q: What’s your vision for the future?
A: We’d like to be the number one food supplier in the UAE, continuing to produce sustainably and satisfy the consumer’s needs.
Q: What difficulties do you face when growing the produce?
A: The biggest challenge for the crop is during summer; you have very high temperatures and because we’re using the cooling pad and cooling system to control the temperature, there is a chance of high humidity inside the greenhouse. This is a problem because when the flower of the produce is surrounded by too much humidity the pollen sticks – we need it to be able to move.
Q: Lastly, what’s your favourite Spinneys product?
A: The carrot cake!