Organic in the desert

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CHIT JUAN

CHIT JUAN

WHEN our friend, British expat Debbie Rogers said she would take me to an organic farm in Dubai, I was imagining elevated planters like what they have in Bohol, as I never imagined planting in desert sand.

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About 30 kilometers outside the Dubai city center, we finally arrived at organic Oasis, an organic farm sprawled about five hectares in Al Khawaneej. Yes it was such a surprise coupled with another surprise of finding two Filipinos working as managers—Adele Alcala-Tuazon, the office administrator and Emerson of Gen San, the agriculturist farm manager.

Emerson and Adele took us around the property where kohlrabi, purple cabbage, cauliflower, carrots, beetroot and fennel grow. “These grow from November to April,” Adele tells us. Come summer, they shift to potatoes and squash that are the only stuff that can withstand the desert heat.

Emerson pulls out some carrots and radish, and tells us they can only use salt water as they have yet to acquire a desalinator (salt water, chicken manure and nature). That’s all these vegetables sup on, but they are big and healthy growing in the desert sand. “I can’t believe it,” says Rommel Juan, who found it amazing to see carrots and arugula and lettuce, all healthy and lush.

The farm was started by an Emirati, a Sheikha from the royal family who was looking for organic vegetables for her own use. As they expanded the farm, they acquired USDA and EU certifications to make it truly organic. It became a novel tourist destination for “open farm” days when locals and tourists alike pick their own vegetables.

In the greenhouses, they have the cucumbers and tomatoes, which require a more gentle even temperature and where huge exhaust fans balance the heat and cold of the desert. We picked and ate some cucumbers and had some arugula as we walked around the expanse of the farm.

A fenced area for about a hundred free-range chickens is located at the far end, farthest from the country road. You can actually watch the hens lay their eggs and nothing can be fresher than that. The chickens feed on the vegetables, too. The owners can get eggs every day, and they do sell some at the weekend farmers market held every Friday. Some chefs have already discovered Organic Oasis and have started to create their menu based on what is available at the farm. Some of the produce are delivered all the way to Abu Dhabi, an hour or two away by car.

I shared with Debbie the idea about Slow Food and how they can actually let chefs meet the farmers so “farm to table” restaurants could be more sustainable in Dubai.

Not just importing all they need, but chefs will be able to use local and fresh produce. Now, that’s more environment-friendly while making the organic farming business also sustainable.

Walking through the sand plots is great exercise for one’s legs and as you walk the property you also get a Dubai suntan while picking your favorite vegetables. The farm needs about ten people to take care of it—from the monitoring of the drip irrigation to the picking of vegetables when they are big enough to sell. We chose the little ones though as a chef had told us that smaller is always better and tastier, at least for eggplants, cucumbers and even okra. Big produce is not good all the time, especially because as organic plants get bigger, insects and pests start to feast on them.

Emerson also showed us a couple of trees of “mansanitas” or tiny green apple which were the sweetest as you pick and bite into their crunchy flesh, remembering to put out the pit. They are the size of golf balls, some even smaller yet already sweet.

“Nothing is impossible,” I tell myself as I am mesmerized by the expanse and the lush growth of the various vegetables. It also makes one think, ”if they can do this in the desert against all odds, how lucky are we where soil is always damp and where we get rain and normal water?”

How lucky are we to have plain water, not salt water, for our farms? How lucky are we to have cool climes like in Tagaytay and our own Amadeo, Cavite? Sometimes, you need to see the desert to appreciate what we have in our own country.

And with one’s resolve, nothing is really impossible. Growing vegetables, organic at that, in the desert is really an oasis. When you get the chance to go to Dubai, ask to see the Organic Oasis. They have “open farm” days when you can romp around and pick your own vegetables. It’s a good way to teach the children, too, that nothing is impossible if you really want to do something different.

Organic, desert farming, what a wonderful way to grow one’s food with the shared vision for healthy living, environmental protection and sustainability.

Organic Oasis is in Al Khawaneej, Dubai. You may write them at admin@organicoasis.ae. Find them in Instagram@organicoasisae or log on to www.organicoasis.ae.

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