Inside the only farm in the UAE that grows large blueberries

Bumblebees imported from Europe help pollinate thousands of berry bushes at Al Foah Farm.

Down a dirt road off Dubai-Al Ain Road, in one of the greenest regions of the United Arab Emirates, you'll find a sprawling farm that's home to some of the tastiest berry selections.

Bumblebees imported from Europe help pollinate thousands of berry bushes at Al Foah Farm in Al Ain, with some 1.500 bees per hectare frantically working between planting and harvesting months.

Owned and operated by Elite Agro Holding, the farm leads the local production of some of nature's best superfoods, including raspberries, blackberries and strawberries.

But it also holds the title of being the only establishment in the country that grows blueberries.

“Berries are fascinating because they have a very short shelf life, but they have become very popular with consumers in recent years,” said Ian Summerfield, chief executive of Elite Agro.

“Location is our only selling point. You can't get cooler than this."

“We operate something called the triple two policy. Taking the berries from harvest to cold storage takes less than two hours, the berries are only touched with two hands; the collector and the consumer, and we store all our products at 2°C to keep them fresh”.

Large greenhouses equipped with water-based cooling systems house thousands of plants and bushes where the berries are in full bloom during their given season.

Blueberries are usually harvested from January to May and raspberries and blackberries from October to April.

Twenty greenhouses dedicated to blueberry production cover a total area of ​​12 hectares, with an average of 5.400 blueberry plants per hectare.

Raspberry and blackberry production is on a smaller scale, with a total area of ​​1,8 hectares and 1,2 hectares, respectively.

The farm houses four premium varieties of blueberries: Dazzle, Eureka, Eureka Sunrise and First Blush. The plants come from a breeder in Australia called Mountain Blue Orchard.

In terms of flavor profile, Summerfield said the blueberries have a "sweet but strong flavor, are larger than most and have a crunchy texture."

“We had to find berries that could cope with this weather but still give a big burst of flavor,” he said.

“In 2017 we signed an exclusivity agreement with Mountain Blue Orchard because we discovered that these varieties would be the best for this market both because of their taste, texture and size, as well as because of the growing conditions we had.

“We are the largest and only blueberry grower in the United Arab Emirates and we are the only people allowed to grow these berry varieties in the Middle East.”

Fruitful production annually

During harvest, blueberries are picked by farmers three times a week and reach store shelves within 24 hours.

Depending on where you shop, a 500g basket of Elite blueberries can cost between Dh30 and Dh40.

Annually, the farm produces around 300 tons of blueberries, 70 tons of raspberries and 30 tons of blackberries in dozens of hectares of greenhouse space.

Over the next few years, Summerfield said the farm will expand its blueberry crop by 13 hectares, meaning that by 2026 it will be producing close to 700 tons of blueberries a year.

How do you grow the perfect blueberry?

Blueberries have very specific pH requirements, so young trees are planted in coco peat, made from coconut husks, and perlite, a naturally occurring mineral.

A drip system, which distributes a combination of water and fertilizer, is used for each plant and receives around 3,5 liters of water per day in the hot summer months and only one liter during the coldest winter season.

For pollination, each flower on the plant must be visited by a bee between 18 and 23 times per season, and each plant has about 1600 flowers.

To keep pests at bay, the farm also introduces insect predators to kill unwanted insects as an alternative to using costly and harmful pesticides.

Summerfield said the biggest pest is a tiny insect called thrips and they bring in beetles to kill them.

Spread over 570 hectares of land, the farm also produces bell peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers and potatoes.

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