UAE - Earlier this year, the UAE announced its robust efforts to build the world's biggest vertical farm near the Expo 2020 site to boost the country's food production and future-proof its agricultural systems. This would also promote indoor, urban farming as the next big step in food production cycles globally.
Taking another step forward, the UAE is now home to one of the largest indoor vertical farms growing Saffron in the Mena region. Touted as the world's most expensive spice, the deep yellow-orange seasoning isn't the most obvious choice to be grown in indoor vertical farming set-ups.
"Vertical farming is usually known for leafy greens, berries etc., but growing Saffron is definitely a new concept. It's a special crop and here, in the UAE, we cherish that," said Christine Zimmermann-Loessl, chairwoman, Association for Vertical Farming. "To produce Saffron locally, in the UAE, is a big step forward."
Located in the Veggitech facility in Al Zubair, Sharjah, the state-of-the-art vertical farm is all set to produce high-yielding, high-grade quality of Saffron in a first-of-its-kind agrotech initiate in the UAE. Owned by Saudi-based SNASCO Group, Veggitech was founded in the midst of the pandemic, as a pioneer in advanced technology with the key aim of boosting the agriculture sector and democratise growth light-assisted hydroponics systems and penetration for mass movement in urban farming.
“The production cycle of saffron will span across 3 months, from mid-August to mid-November, after which the saffron bulbs will be shifted to the greenhouse,” mentioned Ali Abassi, senior operations and development manager, Veggitech. The next 9 months, the facility will be used to grow exotic mushrooms, turning it into smart mushroom indoor farm.
“The indoor farm facility has smart built-in systems to manage the farming process and can be used to control the temperatures and the irrigation systems,” he added.
The smart saffron indoor farm also promises eco-friendly measures, yielding healthier crops, without using fertiliser and pesticides, with reduced land use and minimum water consumption, to ensure a more sustainable production cycle. According to the senior farm manager, each bulb of saffron is likely to give 2-3 stands of saffron, through propagation process. “This year, we’re just starting out, but next year, we’ll increase the bulb quantity to about 12-15, yelling even better results,” he added.
“In the indoor farming space equivalent to 1 hectare, there are approx. 5 tonnes of saffron bulbs, and for 1,000 kg of saffron, we get 1 kg of saffron,” said Mohammad Rashid, farm manager, Veggitech.
Harsh climate and seasonal changes have been some of the biggest challenges the Veggitech team has faced to set-up the saffron farm, to which, incorporating smart built-in systems for farm management have been paramount.
His excellency Dr His Excellency Dr. Engineer Khalifa Musabeh Ahmed Alteneiji, chairman of the Department of Agriculture and Livestock in Sharjah, who was also in attendance at the launch of UAE’s first-ever saffron farm, said: “We look forward seeing our very own saffron farm. To grow , a spice that is savoured and cherished locally, in our very own country is a matter of pride for us. We can’t wait to see zafran going in the UAE.”
According to the chairman, SNASCO Holding Group, Saleh Nasser Al Sorayai, one of the main benefits of bringing new-age agrotech to the UAE through such initiatives is food security. “The UAE is the right place to take this mission forward, given the support from the government., upholding the National Food Security Strategy 2051,” said the chairman. The stagey seeks to cement the UAE position as the world’s best in the Global Food Security Index by 2051,
“With the launch of the saffron farm and expanding our indoor vertical farming ventures in the UAE, we are trying to create an industry-first project, collaborating with the UAE government to create educational programmes that promote urban farming in the country, increasing food security and production.”
Will this initiative bring down the cost of otherwise the world’s most expensive spice? “In the future, we will certainly aim to reduce the costs but right now, it's the beginning and we are founding new technology. Hopefully with our strategy and planning, we are going to provide more value with our production and costs will go down,” added Al Sorayai.
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