Twenty years ago, Elena Kinane started growing vegetables on her apartment balcony. Today she is at the helm of one of the largest and most sustainable organic farms in Dubai and the Middle East. In this episode she shares how she created an organic farm in the desert, and why organic farming is better for us and the planet.
Founder Greenheart Organic Farms
Twenty years ago, Elena Kinane started growing organic vegetables on the balcony of her apartment in Dubai. Today she is at the helm of the largest chemical free organic farm in the UAE. She meticulously researched and experimented over the years, and now grows over 140 varieties of vegetables in the desert. She sells direct to consumers as well as some of the top restaurants in Dubai.
Maria Marlowe: [00:00:34] Hey, guys. Welcome back to the Happier and Healthier podcast. Today I am with Elena Kinane, who is the founder of Green Heart Organic Farms. The reason that this farm is so special is that not only because it’s organic, but because it’s in the middle of a desert. So she’s going to be sharing a lot about organic produce today. I’m farming. Why? We want to choose organic and sustainable methods. So, Elena, thank you for being here. Thank you for coming. So we just had an amazing walk around your farm. Yes. I’m curious, how did you get into farming? You weren’t always a farmer.
Elena Kinane: [00:01:10] No, but I come from a family where we grew parts of our food and our sort of home garden farm type setup. My my great aunt was big into that and some other relatives. So I was familiar with the concept of growing your own food. It was a lot of people are not. But when I came to the Middle East, first to Dubai is 25 years ago and there weren’t as many choices as they are today. And to get really good food was difficult. Fresh greens, organic. It just wasn’t available. So I have some health issues and I needed good food and I was bringing some stuff in. But the Greens basically were lacking from my diet. And so I started very small on the balcony and then we had a garden.
Elena Kinane: [00:01:56] And then I went to farms that belonged to friends of mine, you know, a lot of local friends. And so it kind of slowly but surely grew. And we experimented. And when I had my kids, it kind of became such a passion. And I was so grateful that I was able to feed them really healthy, clean food that in and more moms asked me, can you grow some for me? And then the desire really kicked in that I want to do this for a living. I want to provide people with the best possible produce. I want to feed people basically with with honest food. And when I started, I wasn’t really sure how five take it. So it was we took it like every every month. It was a new surprise, a new little achievement. And it gets you hooked. And the more you achieve, the more you want to achieve. And it started like that. And it’s a journey with every day we do something new. We discover and it’s it’s every day you learn something new.
Maria Marlowe: [00:02:55] It’s incredible. The farm is huge. I’m just so amazed by what you’ve created. How many varieties of produce are you growing here?
Elena Kinane: [00:03:03] Around 140 now. Wow. And it’s I mean, we grow alone 30 different types of tomatoes. So if you look at it from that angle, then we have this the we’ve really push the boat out with the cucumbers. No, I really want to move away from growing hybrid cucumber. So the have I think it’s now twelve that were selected for second growing because we had initially a lot of different varieties and then be selective. And so we have select twelve and out of those twelve so we’ll be going to carry on with eight. So we always grow more initially and then kind of make the selection. See what works. Yes, it works. What what people want as well. You know, if something is not popular at all, there’s no point growing it, you know. But sometimes who persist with things as well, where we see it will take a bit longer and has a future. It just needs a few attempts. Our lemon cucumber, for instance, the classic example, when I first grade six years ago, nobody was interested. It just people weren’t having it. Now, the moment we have it, it’s on the website. People are ordering it straight away. So it a real success story, but it took a little bit longer, you know.
Maria Marlowe: [00:04:06] Can you explain what’s the difference between a hybrid variety and an heirloom variety?
Elena Kinane: [00:04:12] So, heirloom variety is everything that’s been around before 1952. 1952 was the year where mass produced industrial seeds first came along. Now, not all mass produced industrial seeds are hybrids, but most of them are. And they’d be more expensive to buy for the hobby garden. Not because they say they’re the better variety because they grow faster. They give you better yields la de la. They’re more resilient to pests and disease and certain things. But the main characteristic of hybrids is that you cannot grow them back. True to seed. So let’s say you grow a hybrid tomato and you want to take the seed and you replant the seed. You won’t get the variety. See what I mean? So you won’t be able to do that because it’s sterile. And some of them, you will get little plants maybe, but there won’t be any fruit. So it’s really important for us in the desert. Saying that we choose varieties that are an heirloom so we can adjust the seeds to the growing conditions. So every year they do better. They need less water. They are better adjusted. And. And it really makes sense because we have a very limited amount of resources. So there’s no point in growing Dutch lettuce, for instance, the hybrid letters, because they need an awful lot of water and many of them are designed for for hybrid growing methods. So, for instance, for hydroponic or aquaponics or these kind of varieties, types of growing, which is not suitable for us at all. We want to grow in soil. We believe in soil. And for us, we need traditional varieties that are doing really well in hot climates where we select the countries that we select from our hot weather countries. So there’s no point going to the north of, you know, Scotland to select vegetable varieties that they grow there. You know, there’s no point.
Maria Marlowe: [00:06:06] Sometimes when you go to the grocery store, you get these tomatoes that are less fair and you buy them and you cut into that. That’s all water. And there’s absolutely no flavor. And it’s a lot of these modern varieties are grown to be heavier. Because you pay by the pound. But there’s no flavor.
Elena Kinane: [00:06:23] And the problem is, you see, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t have flavorsome, nutritious produce and get it very quickly. Some modern varieties have been bred to produce a lot of vegetables very quickly. They have shallow roots. They grow very quick. They take chemical fertilizers that are added topically. So the shortest period of time you have huge fruit that are full of water. They take up a lot of water as well. So you need for this setting. It would not be suitable at all. And that’s why there is no flavor. And the chemicals take away any taste, any sweetness. And the pesticides are really negative, not just in terms of adding toxins, but also hindering the development of flavor and size and so forth. So they are designed to create, for instance, the tomatoes that are suitable for export. They have a thick skin. They’re harvested and they are green. And then they’re sprayed with ethylene, you know. So this is why we eat food that has no flavor, has no nutrients and is actually really toxic. But the way that these hybrids. This is what the hybrids are designed to do. And flavor nutritional value have been sacrificed for speed and volume in a nutshell.
Elena Kinane: [00:07:40] So this is this is what’s happened, unfortunately. And this is why we eat so unhealthy. Even if we go to the supermarket, we buy a lot of vegetables and we think we do ourselves a favor. We eat raw food. But the raw food that we eat is a fake. You know, there’s really not much nutrition because nutrients in food have to come from somewhere and they have to come from healthy solids. And then you don’t have healthy soil. There is no nutrients in the plant. And because the chemical fertilizers, they will not give nutrients to the actual fruit. Then we talk about tomatoes here so they will make the plant grow fast and they will make the fruit develop. But there is no nutrient in it itself. So nutrient uptake has to happen very slowly, gradually. So then we add compost to the soil. The roots have to evolve. They have to uptake the nutrients off the soil slowly. And it happens in a lot of different things, stages that are happening here. But it’s when you give chemical fertilizers, it’s like it’s like a shot in one goal. And he pushes it up and there’s a growth spurt. But when you grow with natural compost and natural minerals, it’s a very slow process. And that’s where you get the flavor, the nutritional value.
Elena Kinane: [00:09:00] That’s when you get the nice texture, you know. So it’s really in when you get the smell, even the smell. Modern varieties, there’s no smell. You can’t stand next to tomato and you wouldn’t know it was a tomato. Whereas here if you go and smell on those tomatoes walking by, it’s so amazing, maybe you don’t know because it grows way too fast to develop that smell.
Maria Marlowe: [00:09:19] Yeah. And all of that phytochemical. So with the soil you started here w essentially sand. Right? And you had to create a soil over years and years. Yeah. By using compost.
Elena Kinane: [00:09:34] We’ve made our compass. We very quickly realized that we needed to make our own soil, that anything that we were trying from the outside it was just wasn’t working. Larger scale. So we have animals. So very few animals to begin with. We have a lot more. Now we have the goats, chickens, cows, and we feed them from fodder grown at the farm. And then we are slaughter free farm. So nobody has escaped. We are not killing animals. We don’t even sell milk, for instance. We sell a few of the eggs, but it’s the humane, you have the animals just for the manure, and the manure has to be very good quality so that we have to have really happy animals that are fed properly.
Elena Kinane: [00:10:15] And the manure is then mixed in with the plant crop leftovers that astride shredded and the composting process takes about six months. And once the manure is fully decomposed and healthy, then we need to mix it in with the soil that is already in the in the land. So we have a ratio of about 15 to 20 percent every farm cycle. So you saw the big compost heap earlier that year, ready to go, really nice black, strong soil, nutrients. And then that goes in. And you can see the outside field that we’ve just created. You saw how nice the soil looked. And that was then a field that was ready to go.
Maria Marlowe: [00:10:58] You know, one thing that’s been really interesting being here is seeing how everything’s interrelated. You mix vegetables together, for example, here we’re sitting by some kale and there’s also some scallions or spring onions planted in the middle. And why do you do that?
Elena Kinane: [00:11:13] So are huge believer in companion planting. So first of all, you see everything is mixed up. We don’t do monoculture. So most farms would take this entire field and grow one variety. Now, we have similar varieties here because kale is a little bit more tricky and let us a little bit more tricky to grow. So we need to keep a certain temperature level in here, but we are into planting different varieties and then we have companion plants to keep pests at bay. So kale is very nutritious. My flies absolutely love it. And to keep them away, we inter plant with garlic, onions, marigolds, you know, different types of herbs. And it really, really works.
Maria Marlowe: [00:11:56] So this scent essentially acts as a natural pesticide to keep the little bugs and critters away. Well, not entirely, but it’s not necessary. We can have also the different living creatures here, but they mustn’t take overhand. Right. That’s the you don’t want them eating through all of your case.
Elena Kinane: [00:12:15] Exactly. That’s what we want to avoid. And that’s what happens in monocultures. Really, really a modern day evil. And we need to move away from it. We need to create smaller farms on which families live and in which families work on and where they grow lots of different crops. And they have animals, livestock that they keep for compost production. This is the way forward. And people say this is old fashioned. We need to find more technical and more technical approach. But really, this is this is what people say that don’t really understand farming, to be honest. Technology can play a part. For instance, we would love to get alternative means of powering our grow houses. I’d love to have solar panels and I’d love to get more technology for the composting, but the actual growing needs to be done in soil is really, really important. Other methods are just not cutting the mustard. It’s just not the way to go for a variety of reasons.
Elena Kinane: [00:13:21] But so having good seeds, the research has to go into the seed production. What seeds work well in the UAE desert? Develop those work with your own. Create your own seed bank. That’s what we’re doing. It’s one of our primary tasks is to have our own seed bank with seeds that would grow on this farm, produce on this farm and that give really good value, really good yield without using any chemicals. That’s the key to making it affordable and making it making honest food affordable in this climate. In this setting, that’s the way to go. And you will see we haven’t really increased prices in years and we even reduced some prices. And over the next two years, we will be able to reduce some prices substantially because we have not all our own seeds and we are doing so much better yield wise. And that will reflect and that will then everyone will benefit from this, including our planet, because we know poisoning.
Maria Marlowe: [00:14:22] Yeah, well, one thing I think that maybe sometimes confusing or people aren’t fully aware of is that even on organic, these huge organic monoculture farms that are very prevalent in the US, for example, they still use chemicals on the on the produce. They’re less toxic than the conventional ones. But here you’re really using very like, nothing.
Elena Kinane: [00:14:45] No way 100 percent chemical free that we use. No chemical, no fertilizer, no chemical pesticides, nothing. And we don’t even buy the organic solutions that are available on the market. There is loads of organic pesticides and organic fertilizers already made. And we make everything here. We do our own to make acid.We make our own potions. We ferment. That’s actually great fun, to be honest. You like this bit? We experiment and we be withdrawal of my weighted practices. And there’s a lot of this as well. Nature provides us with everything with Charlotte. To be honest, you know, there is. So you like cinnamon, for instance, that it’s a magic magic ingredient for all of our potions. It’s so good. But it has to be the real cinnamon, you know, the good quality cinnamon. And it could give you loads and loads of examples. But it’s really satisfying to make your own remedies, to make your own soil, to create your own seeds, to look after, feed your own animals so that you’re in your own little bubble.
Maria Marlowe: [00:15:52] So for anyone that’s, you know, at the grocery store, do you have any tips or advice for them on what to look for? How do they know if they’re organic is really organic or if. How do they know that they’re making the best choice?
Elena Kinane: [00:16:05] So every produce should have a label attached to the basket, you know? So I don’t believe in packaging things, but should the basket should have some sort of label attached to it where it comes from and by whom it is grown. So even for local produce, if you see it in a basket, you can look out. This is the name of the farm. Then go up. Google it. Look at their website. What is that that they do? They’re producing their own compost? Are they producing their own seeds? What is their philosophy? You know, I think get in touch. If this is a brand that you buy regularly from that you see all the time in your local supermarket, make an effort to get to know who they are. And then they should want to want to share information with you, because growing organic food in desert is a huge achievement and everyone should be willing to share their practices with you because customers are entitled for transparency. Yeah. So this is our duty to share with them what we do. You know, it’s very important. So that’s what I would do.
Elena Kinane: [00:17:12] I would I would really if I if I see even more important items, you see, it’s coming from one place. It was one name that keeps cropping up. Look them up and see who they are, you know? And if you don’t see a sign, then you go to the section in the supermarket and ask the staff and says, excuse me, these are local organic cucumbers or tomatoes. Who is the supplier and they have to give you information. They will need to know where it’s coming from.
Maria Marlowe: [00:17:39] I think it’s safe to say here in Dubai you have the best farm, the best producer, really growing it as nature intended for anyone in the U.S. I would say look up for our local farmer’s market. And you can actually go and speak to your farmers.
Elena Kinane: [00:17:53] In the US would be a great yeah, a great way to purchase, but again, speak to the farmers.
Maria Marlowe: [00:17:58] And see how they grow up because not everyone at the farmer’s market is going to grow it the same way.
Elena Kinane: [00:18:02] Exactly. There will be huge differences between different farmers and Make up your own mind. Always ask questions. Yeah. You know, that’s what I would say.
Maria Marlowe: [00:18:14] So you’re very passionate about organic, you’re very passionate about sustainability. What do you want people to know about organic sustainability or healthy eating? What is your method? And just what do you wish people knew
Elena Kinane: [00:18:24] Well you see food is the answer to many of our problems. Food is the answer to our health issues and food is the answer to our global issues. Right. So, for instance, I really believe that the way we eat has created a lot of for us personally has created a lot of problems. A lot of the chronic disease, we can trace it back to the way we eat. I’ll give you an example. Autism in children. 50 years ago, there was no autism. Now we have one in a hundred children or even more now that suffer from autism. This we can trace that directly back to pesticides. Right. Attention deficit disorder can be directly traced back to two pesticides. There’s a lot of research on this out there now. So again, 50 years ago that wasn’t around. Now, I mean, there’s like four million kids that have attention deficit in the US alone. I think this is the latest figure that I read.
Elena Kinane: [00:19:27] So just because we can’t see the toxins that are on fresh food doesn’t mean they’re not there. So this is the misconception in packaged food. You can see on the label what’s in it. Right. But fresh produce, you can’t see what’s on it. And be eating a lot of toxins that we don’t know what they’re doing to us. And also, you mustn’t forget, it’s not just that there’s one type of pesticide and one type of fungus saying there will be several different ones and there’s actually no research on what they do together. That reaction that they produce the chemical compounds that are reacting with each other. There is zero, zero research out there. So we’re basically it’s almost like we’re living in an experiment because we don’t know where it’s going. We don’t know what we’re doing to ourselves and the companies that are producing these chemicals they don’t know either because they haven’t done the research. So. There’s very little funding for it, so we’re not huge. And so we’re making ourselves ill by eating the wrong food, but we’re also killing our planet by growing the wrong food.
Elena Kinane: [00:20:35] We say nowadays this opinion that we can’t feed the world without genetically modified foods, without chemicals, conventional farming, Hoxha is a necessary evil. It’s not true. It’s propaganda because we can we look what we are able to do in the UAE desert. And we get more productive every year. We are better. We self every year. You know, and we don’t have a huge we don’t have huge resources. We are our team of wealth here. You know, so we we do a lot of things in a very step-by-step manner and we are able to achieve it. So I do not believe that we cannot do this larger scale in many different places, but it’s nobody will grow terribly rich from it. You know, you will you will make money. You are sustainable. You know, families can feed themselves from. From the money that they make, from growing honest vegetables. But it’s not going to make one company hugely rich. And this is what unfortunately, what people are striving for and destroying our planet with the way we grow food. It’s just the wrong approach because we poisoned our water, poisoned our soil, we kill our soil, kill all the biodiversity, we kill the bees, we kill all the beneficial insects. And for what? Because sooner or later, it’s all dead. And then you can’t use that land anymore. It’s gone. You see, so what farming should do? Food production should create healthy soil. And then this soil is able to store the excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Maria Marlowe: [00:22:21] Earlier on the right over here, you were talking about how organic farming can be extremely beneficial for removing CO2 and helping with the whole climate change, helping to prevent that. So can you talk a little bit about that? Yeah. This is really, really important.
Elena Kinane: [00:22:35] And very few people know about this. So to grow genuine organic food, you need to produce organic soil. So we don’t have soil here. So for us, it’s always been a priority. So the composting, we add nutrition to the soil, we add structure to the soil through composting and the roots and the soil that exchange. So it’s not just that the roots take, which is our misconception. There is an exchange happening because soil is alive. There’s so many micro-organisms and a handful of healthy soil that small microorganisms and there’s the humans on this planet. So soil is a living, breathing thing. And so the the exchange between the soil and the roots produces a fungi. And this fungi has the ability to store carbon dioxide in the soil where it belongs. So if we were to change the way we produce food, change our farming practices, we actually produce healthy soil, crop, rotate companion plants, do the right thing, allow for resting periods, grow from proper heirloom seeds. We can drastically reduce global warming through food production. And the Rodale Institute in the US has done a lot of research on this. And they are really my heroes, to be honest. And they have calculated that if we would change the way we farm tomorrow, you know, all of us could reduce global warming by a third in five years, five to six years. That’s what they were estimating because of the way we would enrich the soil, understood the fungi in the soil that would be able to capture and sequester carbon dioxide.
Maria Marlowe: [00:24:20] Well, switching gears just a little bit for anyone who is trying to grow some organic produce at home or at a little herb garden. Any tips for keeping them alive?
Elena Kinane: [00:24:31] Choose a shaded place. You want to have morning sun, but you want to be shaded during lunchtime sun. Use a salt barrier. Right. So even if you have nice looking, a nice looking patch, don’t be fooled. There is salt rising up from below. So if you don’t want to grow in containers, you want to grow in the soil, you need to put an a salt barrier up. This is not really difficult. You just dig a hole, you put in some agricultural cloth, then add some gravel and then you put your soil on top. So a lot of people do use the Bokashi composting system that put the sweet sand in the mixture with the Bokashi and then they grow in that. But the salt barrier is really, really important.
Maria Marlowe: [00:25:10] Ok. Is that specific to this area or?
Elena Kinane: [00:25:13] When you have salty soil, we live close to the sea so most people that would grow close to the sea that would have salty salt.
Maria Marlowe: [00:25:20] I tried growing herbs and I posted this beautiful photo on Instagram of all my herbs and flowers, and they’re all dead now. They lasted for a little while.
Elena Kinane: [00:25:29] You bought them in containers?
Maria Marlowe: [00:25:31] Yes, like in little things. But then I planted that while I had the store plant them in a little container and they lasted a good couple months. But now they’re just shot. If I didn’t water them by the minute, a minute too late, they were dead.
Elena Kinane: [00:25:45] What we recommend for customers now is to buy our heirloom produce, like the fruit, vegetables mostly. You know, they can keep the seeds. So put them on your windowsill. Let them rot. Basically keep the seeds inside for as long as possible. Yeah. Then you can take the seeds and grow from them. Yes. A lot of people do that.
Maria Marlowe: [00:26:02] I know. It’s so interesting learning from you earlier about how to wait for the fruit and the seeds to actually rot before you plant them again. And that’s how you get the best deal. And that’s how it’s done in nature.
Elena Kinane: [00:26:15] Yeah, yeah, they copy nature. This is our biggest teacher, you know, this is what we love. We copy what nature does and then we, use the elements and be translate into farming.
Maria Marlowe: [00:26:23] Yeah. So one last question that I like to ask everyone that comes on the show. If there’s just one tip or piece of advice to leave our listeners and our viewers on how to live a happier and healthier life, what would you tell them?
Elena Kinane: [00:26:37] A sense a good sense of humor. If you don’t have it already develop a good sense of humor, because every day, every minute something you happen to see me in on the phone or whatever, and you just have to be able to see the funny side and laugh about it and just be kind to each other, you know, and put the love out there.
Maria Marlowe: [00:26:58] And the love. It’s very evident, the love that you have for organics, your farm, your customers. And I really thank you so much. Thank you so much for coming out here.
Elena Kinane: [00:27:07] It was a pleasure to show you the farm.
Maria Marlowe: [00:27:09] And the website is greenheartuae.com. And Instagram as well. So definitely if you’re in Dubai. Check it out. I buy my produce from Elena every single week and I forced her to let me come out here and see the farm and interview her because I really love her produce and everything that she’s doing.