Chile: Azapa Valley organic olives ripe for export

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Chile: Azapa Valley organic olives ripe for export

Chile's Azapa Valley is synonmous with olives which have grown in the region since the late 17th century and were reputedly brought over by Spain's Attorney General for Peru Don Antonio de Ribera.

He's believed to have arrived in the valley clutching two jars of olive shoots said to have originated from Seville, according to chronicler Garcilaso de la Vega.

De Ribera also noted the Azapa Valley's climate was slighty better than Peru's with constant temperatures similar to Spain, hovering between 30-36°C (86-96.8°F) in the summer.

It has helped the area in Chile's XV región (Arica and Parinacota) gain the reputation for producing among the best olives.

Although olive growing is deeply rooted in the valley's history with 670 hectares of orchards generating 300 jobs, the fruit's ascendancy is currently at risk.

Peru has expanded its olive production making it harder for Azapa Valley growers to make enough profits to survive, prompting a drive to go organic.

Tarapacá University, with the backing of Chile's innovation agency Corfo, set up a project to support farmers to convert their orchards to organic ones three years ago.

So far they have helped farmers such as Francisco Palza, whose family have been growing olives in Azapa for more than 120 years, convert his 40 hectares of olives into organic orchards.

Olive origins

His grandfather left the family clothing business, based in the Spanish province of Zaragoza, at the tender age of 26 for a better life in Latin America.

He started off as a laborer on a livestock farm near Mar de Plata, Argentina before the draw of rich earnings lured him to Antofagasta's saltpeter mines, which at the time were in Bolivia.

"It attracted lots of European but unfortunately the conditions in the mines were very bad."

And to make matters worse the Pacific War started shortly afterwards in 1879 when Peru, Bolivia and Chile fought over ownership of the mines.

Palza's grandfather wisely decided to change career again and buy a five-acre parcel of land in the Azapa Valley in Arica where he started growing olives.

The fruit was seen as a safer bet than the two other main crops of cotton growing and cattle forage alfalfa, partly because olives can be stored for up to five years in salt water.

Palza's grandfather gradually bought more land expanding his orchard to 40 acres, with his father helping to make the orchard more intensive.

The move to organic

Now the challenge facing the Valley's olive growers is to make enough profit to carry on, which is why going organic is seen as a life line for the sector.

Palza is passionate about the fact his Alfonso organic olives, as well as being healthier, taste better.

"Our olives are bigger, they have a more consistent texture, the skin is thinner, there is less pit and the organoleptic characteristics are different."

Growing organic olives is also significantly more labor intensive which means while the potential sale price is high so is investment.

The trees in his organic blocks are on average 45 years old and there's more space between the rows allowing more light and attracting fewer insects.

"This makes it easier for laborers to pick them without damanging them. For organic olives farm workers have to clear the ground of weeds by pulling them out. They can't use weed killer.

"Everything is more labor intensive - there is a big difference."

Palza explains that in conventional growing hormones are applied to help the trees produce more olives so they stay greener for longer.

He converts dead branches to mulch to put around the base of the tree and a machine plough to apply horse manure as a fertilizer.

Pesticides are also off the menu with Palza relying on the beneficial parastic wasp Encarsia whose saliva eats the eggs of ash white fly, Siphoninus phillyreae, which stains leaves and lowers production.

The seven organic olive farmers belonging to the Tarapacá project are certified by the agency BioAudita who visit two to three times a year to check that everything is just so.

About half of Palza's 40 hectare olive orchards are organic but he plans to make all of his groves organic within the next six years.

He currently has 50 metric tons (MT) of organic olives in storage and together with the other producers they have a total of 200MT for export next year.

They are currently in negotiations with a major Canadian distributor and exploring specialized importer niches in the U.S., Europe and Australia.

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