Emirates Hydroponics Farms: Growing Green In The Desert

A few months ago I took an impromptu road trip with the photographer Rebecca Rees and the trusty Open Skies intern Bob (who is actually a stunning blonde, not a boy as her name might imply). It was the first hot day of the season but we were on our way to interview and photograph Rudi Azzato, the horticulturist heading up Emirates Hydroponics Farms, and were looking forward to an in-depth tour of leafy greenhouses. I pictured us strolling through rows of fresh herbs in glamorous straw hats, learning how to harvest everything we need from the sand. I was naïve.

Rows and rows of fresh basil. Photo by Rebecca Rees.

Rows and rows of fresh basil. Photo by Rebecca Rees.

The farm specializes in fresh herbs and varieties of fancy lettuce. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Rees.

The farm specializes in fresh herbs and varieties of fancy lettuce. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Rees.

The farm is positioned outside Abu Dhabi and the drive was only meant to take 45 minutes. We zoomed past malls, an aluminum smelter,grazing camels, and into the desert. Just a straight shot. An hour and 45 minutes later we began to wonder. 30 minutes more and we admitted defeat and the gas tank was verging on empty. There were no gas stations, no place to turn around, and we had missed our interview time. The only other cars on the road were 18 wheels hauling towards an unidentifiable horizon. Whoops! Just as Rebecca and I began to panic (luckily Bob was unflappable and plied us with melting chocolate chip cookies), we sighted a gas station. Was it a mirage?

Here is what we saw when we get lost. Date palms, sand, and well….more date palms.

Here is what we saw when we get lost. Date palms, sand, and well….more date palms.

Finally we found a helpful road sign

Finally we found a helpful road sign

Once we found our GPS coordinates we decided to stop the car and document our hilarious mishap.

Once we found our GPS coordinates we decided to stop the car and document our hilarious mishap.

After we’d fueled and managed to turn around, we admitted defeat and drove back two hours to Dubai but not until we took a few photos to document the desert trek. Well that was (not really very) fun! I solemnly swear to to use Google Maps whenever I drive anywhere ever again. Perhaps it’s also time to go out with a few of my most intrepid Emirati friends and finally learn some desert survival skills.

Thankfully for all of us, Rudi agreed to reschedule the following week and the result of our tour was published in the July issue of Open Skies Magazine. I’m still remembering the heads of fancy lettuce and zingy basil I was given to take home. By adding just a little olive oil, vinegar, and Saudi feta, it was the best salad I’ve had in years. Here’s to a time in the not too distant future when everyone in the GCC might be able to eat delicious produce grown safely, affordably, and locally.

A rotating growing system perfectly allocates water and light to each plant. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Rees

A rotating growing system perfectly allocates water and light to each plant. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Rees

You can read an excerpt of the feature below:

“Examining a handful of UAE soil it seems nearly impossible that anything beside 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 which the majority of crops needed to nourish the region’s population will actually be grown cost-effectively in the Gulf.

Rudi Azzato (right) inspecting a growing plant with one of his team members in a naturally cooled greenhouse. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Rees

Rudi Azzato (right) inspecting a growing plant with one of his team members in a naturally cooled greenhouse. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Rees

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 his hands dirty, literally. Rudi manages a staff of just 24, which efficiently works 20,000 square metres.”

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You can download a PDF of the complete feature localknowledge.

Or you might prefer to read the article on the hip new Open Skies app here.

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Good Ideas: Emirates Hydroponics Farms regularly offers school tours to educate students about professions in agriculture and cutting edge farming concepts. To learn more visit http://emiratesfarms.com

Photo Credits: A special thank you to my road trip partner in crime, Rebecca Rees for the vibrant images.