Delivering micro-greens to commercial kitchens they day they are harvested, Badia Farms, the GCC’s first indoor vertical farm using hydroponics technology, is set to revolutionise local farming in the region and Mahak Mannan caught up with the founder and CEO, Omar Al Jundi on what the new facility has to offer.
When you step into the Badia Farms facility in Al Quoz, Dubai, it is hard to imagine that it houses an indoor vertical farm full of leafy greens which are sowed, grown and harvested in house on a regular basis.
The process of building the facility which could sustain an indoor vertical farm and provide the plants with the required elements took over a year with Badia Farms breaking into the market in 2018, offering fresh leafy greens to commercial kitchen in the UAE.
“The region that we live in is agriculturally challenged, it is a huge problem for us and we always hear about how the government is trying to address the issue of food security and self-sufficiency. Imagine if everything is flown in and suddenly there is an issue, how are we going to feed the people?” Al Jundi asks.
“When I realised what a big problem it was, I researched and saw that the UAE import 80% of its ingredients and can’t farm all year round due to the weather conditions. Also, when I was in Europe, I was introduced to so many different varieties and flavourful ingredients that explode in your mouth and I wondered why we don’t have it here.” Al Jundi says.
With this thought, the concept of Badia Farms was born aiming to introduce new and fresh products to the market offering the quality and flavour that imported ingredients may not be able to match.
Running an indoor vertical farm is a 24/7 job, according to Al Jundi, as the farm requires regular monitoring to ensure the crops get the perfect amount of water, light and humidity to grow.
“Our seeds are all imported and not genetically modified. We sow them and ensure they germinate in the farm and that is when we move them to the system. Once they are have germinated we need to ensure they are getting the perfect amount of humidity, temperature and spectrum of light so they can grow,” he explains.
“Since everything is high-tech, operation is not an issue as much as monitoring is to make sure the plants do not turn yellow. It is a lot more data collection and monitoring to ensure the correct flow is taking place. The staff walks in every 10-15 minutes to monitor the plants as things could change very quickly. Everything is set up correctly but like any other operation it could go wrong like the temperature going up to 28° when it is set at 22°,” Al Jundi says.
The entire function of the farm is operated through a machine which controls the likes of water and temperature with the touch of a button.
“Everything has to work together, we need to ensure that the water that comes in the summer is cooled down before using it, the humidity outdoor does not get indoor and the temperature control stays in place,” he adds.
Badia farms grows all types of leafy greens like kale, radish, coriander, lettuce, basil, mint, mustard and arugula to name a few.
The seeds used are bred by farmers in Europe over the span of 10-15 years in order to make a master hybrid, which is how the farm can grow exclusive flavours like lemon basil, cinnamon basil, red basil and chocolate mint.
“They would bring a basil plant and a lemon plant, marry it in a sense and have this hybrid produce seeds that would have the perfect mix of flavour, this is why it is such a long process, as there are so many varieties of basil and lemon, they need to get the perfect combination to produce these seeds,” Al Jundi says.
The best-selling product at Badia Farms is the Jumeirah Mix, according to the founder, which includes radish, kale, arugula, rocket and red cabbage. The products flown in from Europe have their own name and we are proud to be from the region so we named this product to celebrate Dubai. It is a satisfactory feeling when I see hotels use the Jumeirah Mix,” he adds.
Recently, Classic Fine Foods came on board with Badia Farms as the distributor for their products.
Currently, the same products that are grown at Badia farms can take up to a week to be flown in to the UAE, “Micro-greens are delicate plants, when they are flown in from Europe chefs say there is already a 2% loss of the product. In our case there is zero waste. If it is ordered today, the produce can reach your kitchen in a few hours depending on the location,” Al Jundi says.
“When you are comparing apple to apple, our product to the flown in product, our yield is higher because we can grow more and sow more seeds, they also last longer.”
One of the most important factor about Badia Farms is that the method of farming is sustainable, saving up to 90% water when compared to traditional farming.
“On the open field, if you use water once, it is gone but here you could re-use the same water up to 10 times,” Al Jundi says.
“This is exactly what the region needs, it is also pesticide free, we use renewable energy and everything is designed in house. Badia Farms is a home-grown concept and I believe that the problems of the region will be solved by its own people. We can always go out and learn from experience about best practices but when it comes to finding a solution, it is down to us.”
The selling price of the products at Badia Farms is lower than the price of importing the same, according to the CEO.
“In terms of pricing, ours is lower and as we grow we will be able to reduce the prices further,” he says.
Since the indoor farm can provide optimal conditions to grow the crop through any season, it has a higher yield too.
“As an example, lettuce can have three cycles per year in an open field, however indoor we can have up to 11 or 12. It differs from product to product but we have seen about 1000 heads of lettuce harvested here in a day,” he adds.
The farm is currently operating in zone one with zone two due to open soon that will enable the facility to produce in larger quantities.
“This is the future of farming. We are able to farm with the weather conditions in the UAE, combating through the tough summers, saving 90% of water in the process, grow all year round and not use any pesticides,” Al Jundi says
“The problem of agriculture in the region will be solved through modern farming. We need commitment, focus, dedication and set examples for other to follow. There is so much more than needs to be done and can be done, we do not need an answer to come from abroad.”