Emirates Bio Farm is a lush oasis where a range of fruit and vegetables are grown despite being surrounded by miles of desert. It has a history unlike any other in the region, going back several decades. In the early 1970s, Yahya Al Kodmani was studying agricultural engineering in Damascus, Syria, but was unable to find a job after he graduated. As luck would have it, his neighbour told him about a man who was ‘greening the desert’ in an area that is now known as the UAE. He moved here and joined one of the many experimental farms founded by His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. He was put in charge of a plot of wheat and did so well that His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan made him project manager of a massive wheat farm in the desert. That too was a success.
From there Yahya moved on to the business of building and developing irrigation systems, greenhouses and cooling systems, which were adapted from international models to work in the UAE’s harsh climate. At the same time, the region’s economy was booming due to the recent discovery of oil wells. His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan wanted to share the wealth with his people and decided to give his traditionally nomadic community a permanent trade by donating farms to nationals.
By the 90s, all fertilisers were being imported, which led to the introduction of new pests and plant diseases to the region. This prompted Yahya to start the Emirates Bio Fertiliser factory, which opened in 1995. It was the first organic fertiliser producer and the largest in the Middle East. Initially, they imported fertilisers which were then heat-treated to kill pathogens. Soon after they began collecting manure from local poultry and dairy farms to produce organic fertiliser. The company even won an innovation award for creating specialised fertiliser for date palm trees.
In 2015, the company was given a plot of land to build an organic, sustainable farm and Emirates Bio Farm was born. Yahya’s son Yazen joined the farm in 2016 as operations manager. We caught up with him at sunrise in the okra fields and spoke to him about his father’s storied history and how the farm continues to make huge strides in agriculture. Organic farming is more difficult and expensive than traditional methods of farming. Chemical fertilisers and pesticides are taboo so naturally-created manure and pest control measures have to be implemented. We noticed a neem tree – native to India – on the farm and were told that it acts as a natural pesticide. “Its leaves are left to soak in water, which is then sprayed on our crops,” explained Yazen. “The bitter flavour the leaves impart to the water prevents insects from eating the produce.” Other methods to keep pests at bay and increase crop yields include barrier cropping, crop rotation and companion planting. It was fascinating to learn that this is why green beans, a nitrogen fixing plant, are planted alongside cabbage, which leeches nitrogen from the soil.
Emirates Bio Farm isn’t in the race to be the biggest farm in the region or growing only disease-resistant crops. Yazen’s biggest lament is that heirloom crops are being ignored around the world in favour of high-yielding varieties. “Grow for flavour – that’s my motto. I have a keen interest in biodiversity and keeping lesser-known seeds alive,” said Yazen. That’s why he experiments with different types of seeds in order to produce the most flavourful crop. “One of our customers moved back to Australia and he wrote to me saying he misses some of our produce,” he added, with a proud smile.
Emirates Bio Farm has been a member of the Spinneys UAE Farmers‘ Club since 2018. It currently provides Spinneys with aubergines and okra. More of its produce will be available in store in the near future. The UAE’s harsh summer months makes growing crops doubly hard but Emirates Bio Farm has found a way around it. Yazen led us into a greenhouse filled cucumber plants where it was very cool. He pointed at a wet wall of thick corrugated cardboard at one end and a fan at the other – “the fans circulate the air which passes through the wet surface and evaporates, thus bringing the temperature down. Similar to how the human body cools itself through sweating”. Understanding more about where and how our food is grown was an incredible experience and one we’d encourage more people to explore.