Growing Strawberries in the Desert
by Scott Matus
For ages, arid conditions in the UAE have made farming a difficult endeavor. But very recently, with an influx of farming companies who use hydroponic farming methods, everything is changing rapidly. A few months ago, Dubai announced the opening of the world’s largest vertical farm for leafy greens.
Now, vertical farming in the region is taking another step forward. French startup, Agricool, which already operates 5 shipping container farms in Paris, just announced the production of their first hydroponic strawberries a few kilometers away from Dubai. This new farm is located in The Sustainable City, a visionary project that aims to be a model for sustainable development worldwide.
For those familiar with the indoor farming industry, Agricool might be a familiar name. The France-based company, started almost 3 years ago by Co-Founder & CEO Guillaume Fourdinier, has raised millions of dollars in investment and to date has opened four of their “Cooltainer” farms throughout Paris, with a fifth Cooltainer coming online in the city soon.
At the onset, Agricool focussed heavily on research and design to fully optimize the growing conditions inside their Cooltainer farms, which are made out of recycled shipping containers that get completely transformed into highly productive farming units.
The startup originally purchased dozens of different LED grow lights to compare and select the best product, only to then decide to design and construct their own LED lights from scratch that consume less energy and provide the ideal spectrum for strawberries. Agricool has applied a similar ‘design-it-yourself’ philosophy to the other areas of their Cooltainer farms as well. Their strawberries are grown in custom-designed vertical aeroponic systems, for example, where nutrient-rich water is sprayed onto the plants’ roots that remain suspended in air.
For the moment, Agricool only grows and sells strawberries. But eventually the company would like to expand its product line to many other types of crop varieties. At heart, they have a simple mission: grow healthy and delicious fruit and vegetables that have a low impact on the environment.
Once Agricool had four successful farms launched in Paris, the company decided that it was time to expand their global footprint and launch a Cooltainer farm in another major city. Many locations were considered as they contemplated where to put the next Cooltainer, but Agricool eventually settled upon The Sustainable City, located just outside of Dubai, to be the site for their first farm outside of Paris.
The UAE’s climate presents a serious challenge for agriculture, but this also makes it an ideal location for indoor farming methods that remove outside climate variables and consume significantly less water resources than traditional agriculture by using hydroponic systems. This made the region very attractive to Agricool, who found their perfect match with The Sustainable City, located only a few kilometers from Dubai.
Now, after constructing the new Cooltainer farm at their facility in Paris and then shipping it to The Sustainable City and preparing it for production, Agricool has announced that they have officially harvested their first Strawberries in the UAE.
According to Agricool’s International Operations Manager, Georges Beaudoin, this first batch of strawberries is a major success. Residents of The Sustainable City are now enjoying their first tastes of the local strawberries, and soon they will be able to enjoy the fruit year-round.
Of course, growing strawberries for the first time in a new location with an entirely different climate was not without its challenges. To learn more about these difficulties and what the future has in store for local strawberries in the UAE, Agritecture reached out to Georges Beaudoin, International Operations Manager at Agricool:
(AGR) - What were the greatest technical challenges around growing strawberries in the UAE?
(Georges) - Our cooltainers are fully automated, except for planting and harvesting. Their design is also standardised, so working in a Cooltainer in Paris or in Dubai is actually very similar. Therefore, we didn’t anticipate challenges in the Cooltainer’s operation so much as in its performance. Weather has been the biggest issue growing in the Middle Eastern climate, especially with 50°C summers. We were afraid that extreme heat would impair the Cooltainer’s temperature regulation, a function which plays a big part in allowing plants to deliver the best fruits. But our Cooltainer has been performing well, and we completed the growing phase during July and August and are now harvesting in September.
This success was made possible by our team of engineers who adapted the design of the Cooltainer to sustain higher temperatures and to be able to perform in this weather. We are actually learning a lot from this test phase and gathering a lot of data so we will be able to improve the design and manufacture more Cooltainers that are adapted to this extreme climate.
Water might have also potentially been a major issue, as water in the UAE comes from desalination plants and contains higher sodium levels. But since we used only 3 cubic meters of water per cycle, with proper monitoring and filtration we managed to control water quality and achieved the same standards as a location that doesn’t use desalinated water.
How much are you growing, and do you plan to grow in the UAE?
We currently have only one Cooltainer in the UAE, which is located in Dubai. It was planted at a third of its full capacity (1000 plants) because of uncertainties with our supply chain’s reliability in providing the necessary materials. Now that we have stabilized our supply chain and the means of production, we are capable of producing at the same rate as Cooltainers in France and will increase the number of plants used for the next harvest. The following harvest’s main focus will be to produce strawberries intended for the general public.
Our plan for 2019 will be to establish more Cooltainer farms in the UAE in order to maintain continuous production and officially introduce our strawberries to the market.
Who eats the strawberries after they’re harvested?
This first season we were very conservative with the strawberry quantity and quality forecast, so we didn’t distribute anything to the public before we validated the taste and quality of our strawberries. Today, the quantity of produce, and the quality and taste of our strawberries are beyond what we were expecting. So, we are very happy to give our strawberries to our local partners and businesses who have helped us make this project possible.
Residents of The Sustainable City are also now having the first taste of our strawberries. We have just opened registration for people to enlist in our Coolmunity Dubai and be the first to purchase our strawberries. Finally, in the next few months, we will be searching for methods to best distribute and sell our future harvests.