by Oliver Balch
A non-profit is trying help farmers build a profitable almond sector in the West Bank, where water and government aid are in short supply
The West Bank isn’t the most obvious location for almond farming. For starters, water and land are in short supply in the heavily contested region and almonds are notoriously thirsty. Much of the traditional knowledge associated with almond production in the region has been lost. And government help is in short supply too.
“As you might imagine, in the occupied Palestine territories we don’t have strong [government] institutions. So there’s no real agricultural research or reliable, efficient extension services,” says Samer Jarrar, director of the non-profit Canaan Center for Organic Research and Extension (CORE), which is trying to promote the region’s almond sector.
Set up by the Canaan Fair Trade company, an exporter of Fairtrade-certified produce from Palestine, CORE’s mandate is to promote the organic production of fruits, vegetables and grains in Palestine and abroad.
Its initial focus is on almonds, which are native to Palestine. The local variety that CORE uses (Hassan al-Assad) is widely prized for size and flavour, and is more drought resistant than those in other regions. A growing awareness of almonds’ nutritious properties has seen global demand rise for the hard-shelled fruit. The timing is good too, with buyers potentially looking for new suppliers as drought-hit California (which is home to about 80% of world almond supply) sees production fall.
Working alongside the Palestine Fair Trade Association, which represents more than 1,700 smallholder farmers, CORE has so far built up a network of almond orchards covering 1,000 hectares in the northern provinces of Tubas and Jenin. It hopes to double this in five years. An initial cadre of 60 farmers is currently embarking on becoming Fairtrade- and organic-certified. The goal is for these participating farmers to achieve full certification by 2017.
Winning the confidence of farmers has proved no easy task for CORE. Unfamiliar with the organisation and accustomed to chemical-based farming, there was doubt about the CORE’s organic methods. The promise of a price premium has helped build interest, however. The Canaan Fairtrade Company, which counts Swiss Airlines, Ben & Jerry’s and UK cosmetics firm Lush among its clients, pays around 20%–30% over the domestic market price. Furthermore, it commits to buy all the certified almonds that farmers produce.
Almond seed wasps
Yet CORE owes its real breakthrough with farmers to a less obvious source: a pest infestation. Recent years have seen an outbreak of almond seed wasps, which attack the fruit of the almond tree. The phenomenon, which researchers closely associate with changing climate patterns, saw almond production in Palestine drop by around 60% in 2012.
With funding from UK charity Christian Aid, Jarrar and his team of plant specialists worked alongside farmers to conduct an in-depth diagnosis of the infestation and to determine an appropriate solution.
“Our first intervention was a conventional one [using pesticides] because we wanted to give an immediate solution before we started talking to the farmers about organic, otherwise no-one would listen to us,” says 43-year old Jarrar, who holds a doctorate in plant protection.
The results were immediate, with “more or less zero infection” rates last year. This success gave CORE the confidence of farmers when it came to proposing a longer-term, non-chemical solution: namely, the elimination of the wasp larvae which incubate in the infected fruit.
“If you eliminate the source of the infection, then you can dramatically reduce the disease,” says Jarrar. “To incentivise the farmers, we buy the infected fruit from them to show that this approach is reliable and less expensive than pesticides.”
CORE embarked on this alternative strategy about three months ago and is confident that an “important amount” of the wasp population will be reduced ahead of the coming season. The infected fruits are either burned for heat or used as feed for animals.
Increasing farmers’ production is a key aim for CORE. At present, yields stand at around 400kg per hectare (this compares with 2,337kg per hectare in California). Jarrar concedes this is “very low” but hopes it will double in coming years as organic methods are taken up.
A key challenge for almond farmers has always been water access which is severely restricted by Israeli authorities, according to Jarrar. Bar a small amount of “complementary irrigation” in summer, CORE doesn’t advocate irrigated almond production and relies almost entirely on rain instead. “Rain-fed cultivation is better anyway because it means the almond seed has a higher concentration of value contents and it’s easier to certify this way too,” says Jarrar.
To fill local knowledge gaps and build up local expertise, meanwhile, CORE has negotiated for three Palestinian students to undertake a two-year masters programme at Bari Institute of Mediterranean Agriculture in Italy. In the second year, the students undertake research projects based on the issues facing CORE’s participating farmers in Palestine.
Jarrar says: “Our end goal is to give support and opportunity to those small, marginalised farmers who are living in the countryside without access to the market or services”