Muscat: Oman is set to complete its first ever aquaponics-based organic farm by January 2017.
The groundbreaking ceremony for the next level of the project is scheduled for this month, and is expected to be completed by the end of this year.
Called the Al-Arfan farm, it is located in Rumais, very close to the Naseem Garden, and is a result of a pilot project developed by Muscat Horizons International, which has brought in Canadian organic farming specialists, Water Farmers Aquaponics, to oversee the project.
The project fuses aquaponics with organic farming, and sees aquatic animals bred alongside agricultural crops in a symbiotic relationship.
The fish in the farm are fed non-GMO feed, and their excreta acts as fertiliser for the crops, with additional nutrients provided to the plants via composting and seaweed extracts.
“We grow fish alongside vegetables in a closed-loop system,” explained Anand Venkataraman, the project manager for the initiative.
“It’s about water conservation and energy usage, which lets us grow food year round, without the difficulties that other farms would face in these climatic conditions.”
“When you provide the crops with a high-nutrient atmosphere and plenty of aeration and you provide them everything else apart from temperature, you can reduce their dependency on temperature,” he added.
“We don’t just restrict ourselves to high-priced crops.
“We grow all sorts of crops, depending on their nutritional value, as opposed to just fetching the dollar amount.”
The farm currently grows a variety of fruits and vegetables, including green beans, okra, rock melon, spinach, chard and basil, with plans to rotate the produce in the winter by planting crops, such as kale, tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce. Come January, the farm will also begin selling the tilapia and salmon that are produced alongside the crops.
Al-Arfan currently produces about 100 kg of vegetables and fruit every week, and already makes deliveries to the Sultan Centre and two hotels: the Al Bustan Palace and The Chedi, with deliveries to the Intercontinental Hotel scheduled to begin next month. They’ve also recently introduced a home delivery system this week.
The farm received its organic certification from the ISO-certified Global Laboratories in Al Ghubra, which was set up in accordance with the Ministry of Commerce and Industry. “They ran tests on all our produce,” said Venkataraman. “They have a panel of 72 pesticides they tested our produce against and they gave us a zero on all counts.”
“The surge in organic food consumption in the Middle East has happened because of the general trend of the costs of imports going up and everyone wanting to reduce their dependence on imports,” he added.
“We reduce our dependency on the outside world by becoming more self-sufficient and you might as well produce something that is better in quality than you buy regularly.”
Despite being just two months old, one of the reasons this project has taken root so quickly is because of the awareness people in Oman when it comes to organic food. “You tend to develop allergies from pesticides that hit your immune system, and people have come to realise that,” explained Venkataraman. “Our quality is unparalleled because we are providing nutrients through a water-based system, and this is the equivalent of ploughing soil every 15 minutes and supplying fertilisers and irrigation round the clock, which is not feasible on a regular farm.”
“We didn’t have a plan to expand within a year,” he admitted. “When you’re doing any sort of technology-based farming, the most important ingredient is sunlight, and the quality of sunlight is just ideal for growing crops in Oman. Any produce that is grown at the commercial level is sprayed with pesticides because you want a turnover with every crop that is sent to the market,” he continued.
“You want shelf life because it’s going to be shipped halfway across the globe, and you cannot do that without chemicals, such as fertilisers or pesticides, but that does not mean they are good for the body.”