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Inside the UAE vertical farm that produces leafy greens for your plate

The National logo The National 05/06/2022 Patrick Ryan
A visit to Hygrow hydroponic farm in Sharjah. Hilton hotels is teaming up with Hygrow Farm in Sharjah to provide lettuce, herbs and other greens to hotels using vertical farming techniques. Antonie Robertson/The National © Antonie Robertson A visit to Hygrow hydroponic farm in Sharjah. Hilton hotels is teaming up with Hygrow Farm in Sharjah to provide lettuce, herbs and other greens to hotels using vertical farming techniques. Antonie Robertson/The National

A vertical farm on the outskirts of Sharjah is showing that you can grow anything in the desert — if you have the right technology.

Hygrow Farm produces leafy greens that would otherwise have to be flown in from across the globe.

Using LED lights and climate-cooled spaces, it yields tonnes of crops year-round that could never grow in the Gulf's temperatures.

In February, it struck a deal with hotel chain Hilton to provide lettuce, kale, rosemary and basil. The 10-acre farm includes 13,000 square metres of greenhouses, where various types of lettuce are grown, and a 2,000 square metre vertical farm where herbs are produced.

It’s well-known that the importing of food and beverages creates a significant contribution to the level of greenhouse emissions

Emma Banks, Hilton hotels

The farm has already provided Hilton with about 5.5 tonnes of vegetables and herbs.

“When we started in 2019 we were just growing tomatoes and cucumbers here,” Piyush Acharya, general manager of finance for Trovec, the company that owns Hygrow, said during a tour for The National.

“Technology now means we are able to produce a lot more products that wouldn’t have been possible even a short time ago.”

Climate controlled spaces

“Last year we started producing lettuces and other leafy greens and the response has been amazing,” said Mr Acharya.

“One of the issues with farming here in the UAE is the heat in the summer, which puts a lot of constraints on what can and can’t be grown.

“However, the vertical farm doesn’t have those issues, as we can ensure conditions are kept the same throughout all 12 months of the year.”

The vertical farm and the crops in the greenhouses are grown using a system of hydroponics, in which plants thrive in nutrient-rich water instead of soil.

The temperature of the crops on the farm never exceeds 24°C, even in the heat and humidity of the scorching summer sun.

Multi-story greenhouses

Vertical farming gets its name from the crops being layered on top of each other, to maximise the use of space.

The practice is a solution to the long-standing problem of finding space to farm in rapidly expanding urban regions.

Emma Banks, vice president of F&B strategy for Hilton in the EMEA region, said sourcing locally grown food helps to cut the company's carbon footprint.

“We want to increase the amount of produce we are buying from local suppliers,” she said.

“The reason we are doing that is to reduce our environmental footprint.

“It’s a well-known fact that the importing of food and beverages creates a significant contribution to the level of greenhouse emissions.”

The partnership with Hygrow is already paying off for Hilton, she said.

“We’ve already bought 5.5 tonnes of produce from here since February,” said Ms Banks.

“We’re committed to buying 19 types of foods from local farms here in the UAE, 11 of which are from Hygrow.

“We are also committed to increasing that number.”

One of the driving factors behind the move towards more locally grown produce was feedback from travellers about what is important when choosing a hotel.

“All of the research from our sales team shows sustainability is a key criteria for guests when choosing where to stay, in both the business and leisure sectors,” said Ms Banks.

“It’s also important for us to support the local communities we are operating in.”

The Covid-19 pandemic highlighted how susceptible businesses were to disruption in supply chains. Hospitality was one of many heavily affected sectors.

“During the pandemic we saw how fragile the global food chain was,” said Ms Banks.

“It became much more difficult to import produce so becoming less reliant on that made sense.”

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