Some of Elena Kinane’s earliest childhood memories are of working in her Great Aunt Marie’s organic vegetable garden in Bavaria, Germany.
After moving to Dubai in 1996, she worked for the Government of Dubai before getting married and having two children. Although she had always followed a healthy, eco-friendly lifestyle, she originally got into small-scale organic farming so that she could have fresh produce for her family and friends. After the birth of her first child, she decided it was time to help other families get it too.
She started out working with Nazwa Organic Farm and launched her own Greenheart Organic Farms in 2012. Located in Sharjah, the property has 23 staff variously working on the farm, the office, in distribution and in the farm shop, delivering more than 140 different types of vegetables, greens and some fruit, most of which cannot be found in supermarkets. There is a farm shop in Al Barsha South in Dubai and the company also supplies many of the UAE’s hotels, restaurants and food outlets, including Four Seasons Jumeirah, Emirates Palace Abu Dhabi and Freedom Pizza.
Kinane tells livehealthy.ae about the importance of heirloom seeds, food security and why now, more than ever, people are turning to organic produce.
Can you explain why you use heirloom seeds?
Right now we grow more than half of our produce from our own seeds and we hope to be completely independent from foreign seeds within the next two to three years. The reason for doing so is simple: Nowadays more than 80 percent of all seeds are produced by chemical companies and they are designed to be grown in conjunction with chemical fertilizers and other agricultural toxins. We’re completely against using any chemicals and prefer traditional slow-grown varieties that need natural healthy soil and fertilizers to do well. When we first started, we realized that industrial seeds designed for moderate climates just don’t work very well in the UAE desert. So we looked for traditional heirloom seeds that came from countries with similar climates, and we’ve had such great success with some of them that we’ve never looked back.
What are the drawbacks involved?
It doesn’t always work out. There’s plenty of trial and error involved, but we learn so much along the way. Collecting the seeds of fruit and vegetables such as tomatoes, cucumbers and squashes, for example, is fairly easy. You leave the fruit on the vine for as long as possible and then let it dry out until all the flesh is gone. There are a few different techniques for this. For brassicas, greens and root and bulb vegetables, it’s a bit more complicated. They all need to flower, and some carry the seeds in small pods. In others the seeds are found within the flowers themselves. Also they have to stay in the field as long as possible before they can be dried out in the sun.
How does this tie into food security?
Because we grow from heirloom seeds in proper soil full of nutrients and we put time and effort into our methods, we’re able to produce higher yields than most other conventional farms and even organic farms. Heirloom varieties generally have longer roots, designed by nature to seek out more nutrients at different levels. So they’re more heat-resilient than, say, hybrid crops, which have much shallower roots. In other words there’s much that we can continue to grow successfully even during the summer months. This ensures our ability to supply the market all-year round.
How has your business expanded?
Our online business has seen the most significant expansion. Website traffic has almost quadrupled since this time last year. The farm itself has expanded to meet the increase in demand, with nine new growhouses added recently. During Covid-19 we’ve seen a dramatic increase in online orders, but we temporarily lost many of the hotels and restaurants we supply to wholesale.
Has Covid-19 changed operations?
The farm is now completely closed for anybody that doesn’t work for our business. Contractors and suppliers are not allowed to enter. All staff are wearing masks and gloves. On the farm we are used to avoiding the spread of plant viruses, as they are a real danger to organic farming, so we know how to practice and maintain good hygiene. Sterilization of equipment and wearing protective clothing when entering certain spaces is common practice. We’ve successfully avoided diseases such as the mosaik virus (spread through smoking) or leaf curl virus. Unlike some other farms we don’t allow many visitors. Genuine chemical-free farms can’t really risk the danger of contamination, so we only open our doors to the public in the form of controlled guided tours once or twice a year for regular customers. Our distribution, office and retail staff are all wearing masks and gloves and all surfaces are regularly sanitized after each transaction. Customers are only allowed to enter our store if they also wear a mask. Our staff are no longer using public transport and have been adhering to social distancing and stay-at-home protocols when off-duty.
What do people seem to be ordering most from Greenheart?
We offer an incredible range of our own organic veggies, greens and fruit as well as best quality organic imported fruit, carefully-selected groceries and health foods. Bestsellers include our heirloom tomatoes, strawberries, carrots, eggs, cucumbers, spinach and onions, but a lot of our more unusual items are also doing very well, such as our purple beans, our malabar spinach, our heirloom peppers, and tuscan kale and exotic squashes.
Are people making the link between nutrition and immunity?
Definitely. In recent weeks we’ve seen an increasing number of new customers who are buying from us because our produce is freshly picked, grown in nutritious soil and is completely chemical-free. We get a lot of questions from customers who are noticeably more informed and becoming more picky, and we think this is great. We constantly get messages via social media or emails of thanks for our amazing-tasting, great quality vegetables and many of the new customers are truly astonished by the variety we have on offer. Many customers believe, correctly, that tasty vegetables are more nutritious and therefore better for their immune system. Worldwide, ‘organic’ is often only a label and most supermarket organic produce is wrapped in lots of plastic and is neither fresh nor very tasty. So when customers order from us they can really see and taste the difference.
Ann Marie McQueen
Ann Marie McQueen is the founding editor-in-chief of Livehealthy and host of The Livehealthy Podcast. She is a veteran Canadian digital journalist who has worked in North America and the Middle East. Her past roles include features editor for The National, trends writer and columnist for the Canadian newspaper chain Sun Media, and correspondent for CBC Radio.