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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - A UAE pilot project aimed at growing raspberries and blackberries commercially for the first time is under way in Abu Dhabi.
Despite being notoriously labour-intensive and sensitive to heat, the popularity of berries and their large profit margins have caught the eye of the Abu Dhabi Agriculture and Food Safety Authority.
The organisation is harvesting the fruits of their first season, which began in November, at the Adafsa model farm in Al Dhafra.
“We weren’t expecting to have fruit this season. We were just praying,” said Muhammad Al Muhairi, a manager at Adafsa who is in charge of the berry project.
"We are going to transfer the new practices to the farmers here [to] introduce berries to the agricultural sector.
“We have found that these varieties are going to bring a good income to the farmers who adopt them."
While blueberries have already been grown and sold locally, raspberry and blackberry plants bear fruit sooner and command a much higher price.
The project fits into Adafsa’s goal of increasing farmer income to maintain the sustainability of local agriculture and reduce dependence on imports.
Mr Al Muhairi said that locally grown berries would have a significant advantage over imported ones because of the proximity to the market.
"Raspberries and blackberries mainly come from Europe so they lose more time in transport compared to those produced here,” he said.
“These are perishable fruits and they spoil easily so they only have four to five days even if you deal with them properly.
“So the local produce looks more fresh and it's going to stay in the market longer and have more of an opportunity to be sold."
Adafsa will begin sales of the berries under its Local Harvest brand next year, but it still does not know exactly what the price or profit on the berries will be.
Moreover, the berries will only make it to supermarkets if they are protected from the UAE’s harsh weather conditions.
Too much heat can adversely affect the flavour of the raspberries, said an Adafsa engineer.
“If it gets hotter than 35°C during the day or 15°C in the night, the plants go into survival mode where more energy goes into survival instead of making sugars,” he said.
“If their water supply shuts for a day, they’ll already start wilting because their roots are very short so they can’t get much water on their own.”
Adafsa is hoping that its new knowledge around growing berries in the UAE’s tough climate will maximise farms’ success.
“The very high return on cost compensates for the risk because there’s a big market here,” said the engineer.
Still, because of the risks, Adafsa is recommending that companies begin with a small amount of berry plants and maintain diverse revenue streams in case the berries do not bear fruit.
But even the authority’s relatively small model farm with about 450 berry plants is already due to produce 900 kilograms of fruit in its first season.
While there is still a way to go to get local farmers on board and up to speed with berry farming, the authority said it was also excited about local cultivation of another water-intensive but in-demand and highly profitable crop: avocados.
Updated: March 17, 2020 10:57 AM
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