Elena Kinane lives and breaths organic. The passion for promoting and educating people about her industry oozes from her pores and she is perhaps one of the first in the UAE to start attempting real efforts at organic farming. She has a highly respected reputation within her industry for being perhaps one of the most knowledgeable people about growing organically here. Most importantly, I trust her, because of her passion, integrity and ethics which are visibly at the forefront of her business, and her vision and goals are not just about making profits. Organic is definitely booming around the world, and where money is to be made, we as consumers need to be vigilant. Elena, keeps her focus on the quality of her crops, and is extremely involved and hands on in her business, and she is always looking for ways to move forward and improve year upon year. Over the next couple of weeks, Elena will share with us vegetables that are in season in her shop and how we can use it in our home cooking, as well as other organic items that she chooses have in the store. If you love organic as much as I do, please take the time to read our interview with Elena, as she shares why organic is best, and how she manages and controls their own farms in the UAE to ensure that she is giving us the best crops.
Top tip: Greenheart Organic Farms now delivers to Abu Dhabi.
Did you always believe in leading an organic lifestyle or was there a turning point when you realized that you wanted to convert to an organic way of living?
I grew up in an eco-friendly, health-conscious household where we grew much of our own fruit & vegetables. In my early twenties I lost my way to an extent but due to the onset of an illness that couldn’t be treated with conventional medicine I returned back to my roots and haven’t looked back since.
Can you describe what you eat most of the time around your dinner table? Are you vegan, vegetarian, etc? Why did you choose that lifestyle for your foods?
I used to be a vegetarian for more than 15 years but during my pregnancies and whilst breastfeeding I started to crave meat again. Now we eat a small amount of good quality, grass fed, organic meat & fish together with an abundance of our own fresh produce. We avoid all processed foods and minimize our sugar intake, preferring to use a small amount of natural sweetening ingredients such as Dates.
For those who aren’t familiar with an organic lifestyle, what would you say were the most important reasons for making the change for good?
A switch to a diet rich in fresh organic produce and good organic fats that minimizes the intake of processed foods, allows the body and mind to thrive with renewed energy, strength and focus. We passionately believe that this type of diet will help to prevent or cure all kinds of chronic diseases and that it is the only way to a long and happy life. However, a word of caution: Eating ‘organic’ seems to have become a craze that some companies take advantage of. There are many organic products out there that are in fact highly processed, full of sugar and have all kinds of other nasty ingredients in them. So always check the label to see what’s inside.
A list published in U.S. of the most toxic crops is often referred to as ‘The Dirty Dozen’. As cost can be a factor for some families, avoiding the ‘dirty dozen’ is a good way to start and can help to prioritise choices. In your opinion, what should be on a UAE ‘dirty dozen’ list?
Conventional U.A.E. grown crops are usually heavily sprayed with various pesticides and herbicides. As they’re grown in sand rather than soil their immune system is weak. This makes them highly susceptible to pests and disease. Therefore we recommend avoiding conventionally grown green leafy vegetables & herbs and other crops that you may eat raw in salads such as cucumbers, tomatoes, capsicums and so on. Non-organic melons and watermelons in particular should be avoided as the water content collects a high quantity of toxins.
There are skeptics about the nutritional value of organic foods grown in the UAE because of the soil. What do you do to ensure that your produce is grown with the right nutrients and can you share briefly a bit about your chosen farming methods?
We understand the skepticism. It is impossible to grow genuine organic produce in sand, as it contains almost no nutrients, is often quite saline, and is unable to form aggregates that can store nutrients and water. Over the past 5 years the team at Greenheart has worked painstakingly to build our own soil.
We compost the manure from our grass & vegetable-fed goats, cows and chickens, as well as our crop leftovers. A composting cycle takes about 6 months and is a continuous process. Each grow-cycle, we add on average 15% of our own farm-made compost to our existing sweet sand (there are approx. 3 grow cycles per year).
Now, after almost 5 years we can see the difference in soil between our newer and older fields and the results speak for themselves. The soil can now retain more water and nutrients over longer periods of time and can pass on the right combination of nutrients in small, appropriate quantities to the crops. Yields in our older fields are thus much higher now and we have very few problems in terms of pests or disease.
However, this is also due to other techniques such as crop rotation and our intensive research into companion planting. Aside from compost we also add natural minerals to our soil and grow mostly from heirloom seeds collected at our farm. The collection of heirloom seeds is another important aspect of our research and is, in our view, essential in harsh climates. By avoiding hybrid and GMO seeds we’re able to naturally adapt seeds from other hot weather climates to UAE growing conditions.
Every year our seeds grow stronger, use less water and are better equipped to deal with local pests and diseases. Finding the right heirloom seeds takes a lot of patience, knowledge and research but is key to sustainable farming in the Gulf region and beyond.
Organic Crop growing in the UAE is still a recent development. How do we ensure that it is truly organic? Are there certifications we can look out for? Can you tell us what standards you set for your farms?
The local certification body is ESMA, and each certified farm has its own certification number. The certification is renewed yearly and soil and crop samples are taken to the municipality lab before certification is issued. However, as a consumer I would want to find out more about the grower, their techniques and overall philosophy. A genuine organic grower will be able to answer all questions in detail if required.
At our farms we grow 100% chemical free and don’t use any ‘medicine’ (as pesticides are often referred to locally) and avoid even those that are permitted. Any substance that kills organisms aggressively in a short space of time will also kill all beneficial organisms and will therefore create other problems further down the line. Any problems have to be seen in context of what is happening on the entire farm and not as a singular localized issue.
We are aware that although it may vary from season to season but on the whole, what are your top 5 favourite organic vegetables to eat for health reasons?
During the main season (which is right now) we grow over 100 types of vegetables and strawberries. On top of my lists are Spinach, Kale, Kohlrabi, Beetroot, Fennel and of course Celery but that would make it 6. They are all high in nutrients and have strong anti-oxidant and cleansing properties.
If you could do a ‘Jamie Oliver’ and change what children ate and didn’t eat in the UAE especially in schools, what three types of foods would you like to see children eat less of as well as three types of food you would like them to eat more of?
We would cut out food that is deep fried in bad fats, any food, which is highly processed and laced with regular sugar.
We would introduce more fresh, raw organic greens (yes, children will eat them if they’re properly encouraged), baked root vegetables (instead of French fries and other bad carbs), and treats sweetened only with dates or coconut sugar.
What differentiates Greenheart from other organic retailers in the UAE?
We are first and foremost organic growers and the bulk of our produce is sold to restaurants and hotels. We harvest freshly every morning and strictly don’t stock any of our produce for longer than a day. Deliveries to our wholesale clients leave our retail unit every morning after the truck has arrived from the farm and late in the evening once the third harvest of the day has arrived. This ensures that our produce never stays any longer than a few hours at our shop.
Our farm shop is open to individual customers every day expect Fridays from 11.30am up until 5pm. It is a beautiful large space, furnished with natural wood and materials. Next to our organic produce, eggs and honey we stock imported organic fruit from Sri Lanka and Lebanon as well as a great selection of hand-picked organic pantry items, superfoods, snacks, treats, beverages, dairy, ice cream & much more.
What are the essential spices or herbs that you add to your meals at home to make them super-charged?
We add a lot of fresh Mint, Parsley & Coriander from our farm to most meals and also love fresh Turmeric, Cinnamon & Ginger that we now import from an organic partner farm in Sri Lanka.
In March, what’s in season?
January to March is the main growing season in the UAE and that’s when we reap the rewards of our hard work during the summer months when we do a lot of the preparations. We harvest over 100 different varieties of produce daily which include different types of heirloom Carrots and Tomatoes, Capsicums, Cauliflower, Broccoli, Cabbages, Kohlrabi, Courgettes, Strawberries and much more.
How can people most easily get hold of Greenheart produce?
Next to our shop individual customers can order all our fresh produce and products on-line via www.greenheartuae.com for home delivery. We are about to launch on-line payment and home deliveries to Abu Dhabi will commence shortly. We also take part in a number of smaller markets across Dubai. On Saturdays we are at the beautiful Comptoir 102 Café, we also collaborate with Baby Bazaar and other new ventures will be announced soon.
Are there any misconceptions about organic farming in the UAE?
In general it can be said that organic farming is very difficult here in the UAE and it has taken us a very long time to be able to grow the volume and variety we are able to grow today.
The recent influx of locally grown organic produce in the market can give the consumer the impression that this isn’t so.
Opening Hours: 11:30am – 5pm except Fridays
For more information visit the website www.greenheartuae.com