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Growing Vegetables in the Desert

The phone rang, “Can you answer that?” said Nausheen, who was driving. The screen flashed Obaid the farmer. After a rendezvous in a shopping centre car park we were soon following a pick-up truck, at speed, along a series of highways, out in to the desert. “What do you want to see?” Obaid had said, “I have seven farms.” He was prepared to show us them all but we only had a morning free so opted for the nearest one.

Locally grown, organic vegetables wasn’t a phrase I had heard in Dubai prior to April 2010, then Nazwa opened and there was the first farmer’s market organised by Baker & Spice. I hot-footed it down there, not really expecting much but was proved wrong by the freshness of the vegetables and the pride of the producers in what they were selling. Sadly Nazwa closed but was followed more recently by the Ripe market and veg box scheme – and Elena who ran Nazwa is also providing veg box deliveries. So much choice in less than two years.

The way I shop has changed completely due to the Baker & Spice market (on Fridays at Souk al Bahar and Saturdays at the Marina during the growing season). I shop once a week for fresh vegetables, selecting what looks best on the day, and then structure our meals around the ingredients. My family eats more healthily, the produce tastes so good and we also save money. There will be a hole in our lives once the growing season ends and we have to go back to tasteless, overpriced, air-miles accumulated, imported stuff.

The choice of locally grown organic produce and producers has grown at the B & S market and the connection with growers and eager customers seems to benefit both parties. Organically grown vegetables are important to me (especially since coriander was withdrawn for a month last year due to unacceptably high levels of chemicals being detected by the Municipality) but I’ll admit to being dubious about how feasible true organic farming is in the UAE. The choices we make are not cut and dried.

I met Yael Mejia at the recent launch of her third Baker & Spice restaurant (in Dubai Marina), and someone asked her what benchmark was used for the organic produce, “UK Soil Association standards” she replied immediately.

Really?! I wanted to see this with my own eyes, which is why I was tearing down the highway into the desert with blogger Dubai-Bites and TV presenter Saba Wahid – both avid organic veg. shoppers.

My first question to Obaid was “Why?” After all you have to be pretty committed to agriculture in a desert country with average five days rain a year and summer temperatures in excess of 40 C.

“I am a father now,” was his simple but sincere answer, and his dedication to putting the best food he possibly could on his family’s table and to show others how to produce it too, became clear as we toured the farm for a couple of hours.

Obaid and his (very tall) friend Khalaf showed us round and answered all the questions we fired and more. This particular patch of land was bare two years ago and a lot of hard work, trial and error and research has gone into making it into the fertile plot of today. Obaid is helping Khalaf to convert his family’s 22 farms to use organic practises.

We started at the water source. Well water is used (Obaid is strongly opposed to desalinated sea water), it is filtered to extract the small amount of salt that is present which inhibits plant growth. We dipped our hands into the gushing stream and drank. It was just like spring water, if a bit warmer. Next to the reservoir is the compost heap, supplementary fertiliser is also used but this too is organic. The earth was already turning into crumbly brown loam in contrast to the red sand that surrounded us. Pest control is through companion planting (for example garlic next to lettuce), physical removal (e.g. washing black fly off leaves) and some imported organic pest control remedies from Europe.

Crop rotation is used very carefully in order to put nitrogen back into the soil. For instance there was a crop which is used for animal feed, a sort of clover which generates a lot of nitrogen. As we were visiting at the end of the season, a lot of the crops were going to seed. The farm collects the seed to plant next year and Obaid believes that the same plant, several generations on, will evolve to become more tolerant to the specific conditions and location. We marveled that the broccoli had produced a most beautiful burst of yellow flowers.

Some ears of bleached wheat waved in the beating sun. This was planted as organic food for a small flock of hens. I have long thought there was the market for organic, local chicken but Obaid is not so certain that there is the volume of consumers prepared to pay the higher prices necessary to sustain this.

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