Two milestones for the team of Pure Harvest this week. "We've successfully commissioned our first greenhouse and planted our first crop", Co-founder & CEO Sky Kurtz tells us. The company wants to grow top quality produce for the local market - something that is quite a challenge when you are located in the United Arab Emirates.
The temperature in Nahil, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates will rise to 44 degrees Celsius (111 degrees Fahrenheit) today. Tomorrow is expected to reach 45 and August peaks can be as high as 48 with high humidity – a very challenging environment for plant growth. And still the young tomato plants in the 1-hectare proof-of-concept high-tech greenhouse are doing really well. They were planted last week in the middle of the night. With a greenhouse filled with high pressure fogging and artificial lighting, it was quite a bizarre scene, as the photos show. “We flew the seedlings in from Holland”, Sky says. “The plants were sealed, depressed of oxygen and flown here. To minimize shock when waking and planting them, we worked in the middle of the night and created a cool, humid environment with our fogging system.”
Within the greenhouse, Certhon’s SuprimAirTM technology is found: a climate system to control all growing conditions for year-round production. This system performs throughout the whole year combating outside temperatures. Both temperature and humidity levels are orchestrated inside by a fully Priva-computer controlled combination of efficient ventilation and cooling.
Extremely proud of its team, who've made it possible (On the left Chief of Staff Majed Halawi, on the right Sky with grower Jan Prins),
Extreme summer period
It is still early days; however, for now, it seems like the company’s solution is performing. In the greenhouse are over fifteen varieties at the moment, divided in three tomato types. “The early results are promising and so far the technology is working well. We’re just a week into the crop and so far we’ve been able to create a hospitable climate. Even when the temperature outside reached up to 45 degrees and humidity over 82 percent, the inside climate was perfect for our tomatoes. And that’s what is important to us: we wanted to operate in August so that we could prove our concept during the most extreme summer period. Then we know for sure that we can deliver year-round production as winters are easy.”
Showing the possibilities of their solution is an important theme for Pure Harvest. Sky is convinced it is not only a possibility, but also a very important solution for the GCC region to start growing its own food. “Currently over 85 percent of the fresh produce sold here is imported. Quality, traceability and safety are real issues, not to mention the costs and sustainability of transporting food here (note: average distance of supplying the country with tomatoes is 2,938 kilometers!). Quality is a real challenge: the main varieties are imported due to cost and durability of the product, not because of consumer preferences or flavor profile. By producing locally, we can add new varieties to the market. That’s our goal: use world-class controlled-environment agriculture solutions to produce the highest possible quality fresh produce – grown locally.”
Expanding in the GCC
Sky believes the GCC region has great potential. “Of course it depends on many factors, but I believe the GCC has potential for 100s of hectares of capacity when looking across all crops. We’ve seen the development in Russia which is a challenging winter climate: the interest in a year-round, food-safe production capability to diversify away from European dependency. This industry has boomed there and adoption is widespread. I am convinced we’re in the early stage of what could be a multi-year adoption cycle in this region.”
Pure Harvest’s expansion plans do not end at the UAE border – on the contrary. “The UAE is a great and growing market, but we hope to share our solution to other arid climate markets as well. The market situation in surrounding countries is very similar to here, and we want to expand to serve the entire region. Once we’ve proven our concept – and that’s what we’re currently doing – we will raise additional capital and continue expansion. Discussions are underway with sizeable investors.”
They’re not alone anymore in the region. Over the last months, more projects were announced in the GCC. Currently plants are planted in the BayWa project as well. “We were first, they’ve moved faster – we’re neck and neck now”, Sky laughs. “We see this as a good thing: they’re smart, work with good technology and have an experienced grower. Of course they’re a competitor, but we’re also innovating and building a market together. It helps to show the idea isn’t crazy, showing farming in the desert is a good option. We can support each other – much as the industry in Holland does – and raise quality standards”.
Greenhouses are not a requirement in the Pure Harvest expansion plans. “We see ourselves as a technology-enabled agribusiness company, not as a ‘greenhouse’ company per se. Our company’s DNA is technology – we’ve tapped into the wealth of knowledge in the Dutch greenhouse industry to realize our goals. For now, we focus on vine crops and we’ve started with tomatoes because of the importance of this crop: it’s the biggest piece of the market and also an interesting one to large-scale investors and partners due to similar businesses in other markets. However, there’s opportunity in other crops as well – crops that may or may not be grown in a greenhouse.”
Sky explains how the line between high-tech greenhouses and vertical farms is not as strict when you see them as tools in getting the best climate possible. “Of course, in this region it makes sense to use the available light, but it comes with a lot of heat. You either invest in cooling solutions for your greenhouse or LEDs and (lesser) cooling systems for your indoor farm. We look for the best solution to grow the produce and do not want to limit ourselves to any one production system.”
Currently the plans for a leafy greens project are evolving and the Pure Harvest team is talking to technical partners. “We would love to talk with like-minded innovators and possibly partner-up. It’s no use reinventing the wheel over-and-over again.”
Up for sales
Before moving to other crops and countries though, the first focus is on market entry. With the first produce being harvested in October, currently Pure Harvest is working on packaging concepts and sales operations. “We’ve made it to production – now we have to get our product on the shelves and get people to buy it. We are working to create a new category of year-round premium local produce. We now need to get consumers to buy-into this vision as well.”
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