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Emirates Hydroponics Farms, Dubai

1 June 2014

A blend of businessman, scientist and farmer, Rudi Azzato, the driving force behind Emirates Hydroponics Farms, is dedicated to producing quality vegetables in the UAE’s desert climate

Examining a handful of sandy UAE soil, it seems nearly impossible that anything besides date palms could grow green and tall here, or at least without wasting gallons and gallons of water, a commodity arguably more valuable than gold. The supermarkets seem to agree – push a shopping trolley through the produce section and it’s common to find apples from South Africa, lettuce from Iran and cherries from the USA – all marked at a steep price to cover the import costs of keeping food fresh and safe for consumption on their long international journey.

But it might not be crazy talk to imagine a time in the not too distant future in which the majority of the crops needed to nourish the region’s population will actually be grown cost-effectively in the Gulf. Situated halfway between Dubai and Abu Dhabi, in the sleepy desert village of Al Bahia, is Emirates Hydroponics Farms, a farm that has adapted modern technology from Holland to the arid UAE climate, and is actually able to grow fresh produce year round in an environmentally conscious way. 

The brains behind it all, Rudi Azzato, greets us in a sharp tie and dress shoes. It’s an unlikely look for a farmer, but as soon as Rudi begins to speak about the place to which he has devoted the last nine years of his life, picking up heads of lettuce to inspect the roots as he strolls through his domain, it becomes obvious that he is not afraid of getting his hands dirty, literally. 

Rudi manages a staff of just 24, which efficiently works 20,000 square metres. Traditionally farming is regarded as a humble career path, a fourth or fifth choice for those who can’t be engineers, computer scientists or lawyers. Perhaps by wearing professional attire, Rudi is subtly demonstrating that agriculture is a true science, requiring a university education and a profitable sector deserving of consideration. 

In his lyrical Australian accent, Rudi begins with a simple definition. “Hydroponics means that we grow our produce in a thin layer of water above the ground,” he says. “The medium that we use varies. Our farm has different setups so that, regardless of the weather, something can be growing all the time. We’re always experimenting to find what works and what needs improving in this climate.” 

The farm specialises entirely in leafy greens, harvesting herbs and eight to 10 varieties of lettuce – the mainstays being Boston, Frisee and Lola Rosa. Most of the lettuce is cultivated outdoors on unique A-frame stands, which are equipped with a watering pipe that regulates the amount of nourishment the plant requires depending upon the conditions. 

Rudi is quick to explain that there is nothing wasteful about this. “We use about 300ml of water (that wouldn’t quite fill a Coke can) to keep a head of lettuce alive,” he says. “If you had that same plant in the ground here in the UAE, the soil would first need to absorb the water before any of it provided nutrients to the plant’s roots. It would take three or four litres per day.” He adds that about 90 per cent of the water that is used is recycled and reused. 

Seeds sourced from Europe are planted in a natural base, rather than in soil – in the case of lettuce, this is a product derived from volcanic rock that when moistened feels a bit like building insulation – and this base can be easily moved. 

Rudi has found that “It will take a head of lettuce 50 days to reach ripeness, whether it is in the ground or above ground in a hydroponics setup, but the advantage here over traditional farming is that we are able to pick the plants up and move them around to achieve a much higher crop cycle each year”. 

Next we enter a large tent covered in netting to prevent insects from feasting on a banquet of produce. Inside, three long troughs display neatly set rows of fresh basil in several varieties. The leaves are so flawlessly formed that the plants almost look artificial, and the aroma is overwhelming – like an al fresco pesto lunch in Italy on a spring afternoon. Are we really in the Middle East? 

The hot (but nutritionally ambiguous) buzzword ‘organic’ comes up next. Conscious eaters are often very concerned about pesticides, and the farm sometimes grows crops without the need for herbicide. However, if it’s a rainy year, the crops grown outdoors, such this basil, are often threatened by fungus, so a small amount of chemicals are required to keep the produce safe for eating. 

The next greenhouse sports a cooling pad that resembles corrugated cardboard. At the opposite end of the structure several fans whir away. In combination, the two apparatuses lower the temperature naturally and effectively, even on a humid day. 

Rudi acknowledges that the pricing on crops grown this way is higher than what non-hydroponic farms charge for local produce. “Initially we did have some trouble educating consumers that what we have is very different from traditional farming, but I’m happy to say that over the years the clients have come to really appreciate our quality and that we achieve a pretty competitive price.” 

Certainly the prices are cheaper than what it costs to import artisanal French lettuce varieties for consumption. Gorgeous bunches of parsley are packaged ready to be loaded onto trucks to zip off to clients, including wholesale distributors catering to hypermarkets, upscale restaurants and airlines. 

Inside the last of the enclosed greenhouses, it’s rare that chemicals of any kind are required. The plants are grown off the ground, away from insects and inclement weather. Rudi frequently takes groups of students for tours, and gets a glimmer in his eye as he recounts the city kids’ faces as they begin to understand where the food that they put in their bodies actually comes from. We’re standing with our mouths slightly open at this point, admiring a rotating growing system that closely resembles a carnival carousel. Instead of cars, there are troughs planted with flourishing herbs. As the carousel circles, each trough is in turn exposed to optimum light, water and air.

Rudi and his wife live in a villa on the farm’s grounds with their two young children, who sometimes help out with the school tours. The proud papa delights, “My kids actually compete to see who can eat more vegetables. They know all about hydroponics.” In a country with a high rate of diabetes and heart disease, this is real progress. 

emiratesfarms.com

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