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Island Ecology

Island Ecology

by José P Ribas

The Almond Tree
Part Two

Ibiza Ecology

There are four kinds of fruit trees in the dry fields (good soils but not irrigable) of Eivissa and Formentera which define the local produce on this type of land.

They have become part of our natural environment and have roots deep in our historical culture. These trees have played a very important role in the economy of the Ibicenco peasants and of the Islands in general.

The first and most important in historical times was the olive tree (ancient wrecks of boats full of amphorae containing olive-oil - the oil was still in a relatively good condition after about two thousand years, well sealed inside the amphora - have been found on the sea-bed around the coasts of Eivissa and Formentera). Some of the Balearic olive trees are thought to be over two thousand years old.

The other three are the fig tree, mostly for the local consumption, the carob tree and - more recently - the almond tree. (The wine grapes have also increased in these types of lands across quite a few Hectares in the past two decades).

The almond tree ("Prunnus communis") has been growing on our Islands since immemorial times (most probably brought in by the Phoenicians). The tree is originally from Middle East and North African countries, from where the Phoenicians and Carthaginians came when they founded the city of "Ebusus" around 2,655 years ago, the first and biggest at the time in the Balearic Islands and one of their most important colonies of what is today the Spanish territory).

It is found as well in most of the Mediterranean coastline countries, and its fruits, the almonds, have been used as a rich and delicate aliment anywhere the tree grows.

But it was not until the XVIII Century when its culture on a big scale in commercial terms to be exported, started to be developed in the Pitiüsas Islands.

The natural conditions of our weather and soils (this rustic tree is very resistant to long periods of dry weather, like our summer, and prefers light, deep and well drained soils) are ideal for its production, and the price of the almond was relatively high, so the almond tree soon started to gain space in our fields.

Even so, the amount of almonds exported from Eivissa and Formentera to mainland Spain, and from there to the rest of the world, was insignificant until well into the XIX Century,

That is when we start to have official records of its exportation, at the beginning much below that of the carobs, potatoes, or dried apricots and figs, our most exported agriculture products at the time. But the commercial demand of the almond was increasing every year and the local peasants kept planting almond trees, sometimes taking the place in the fields of old fig or carob trees, all mixed up.

In 1960, the number of Hectares planted in our Islands with almond trees reached 5,677, the second largest cultured crop, just below the carob tree (7,995 Hectares), But, as there are more almond then carob trees planted by Hectare (in Eivissa, the almond tree is traditionally planted from 7x7 metres, up to 11x11 metres, depending on the depth and qualities of the soil), the almond tree was the most planted tree of all. The almond became one of the top products for export and therefore produced one of the best incomes for local farmers.

The almond's world production was - in the beginning of the 1970s - about 641.000 tonnes. More than one third of them were collected in Spain (234,097 tonnes in 1972). The most productive provinces were the Balearic Islands, with the largest extension of almond tree plantations, (3,000 tonnes in Eivissa), Alicante, Castellón, Granada and Tarragona.

Coming down from the farm with the horse and cart, the farmer and his wife and the cart as full as possible of sacks of almonds, towards downtown, to "Vila" (Eivissa Town) to sell the almonds, and from there, straight away to the textile shops to buy the materials for some new dresses and winter clothes for the family, as well as some other needed objects and perhaps some other "sweet" that both will take back home on the cart, with the sun going down in a pleasant sunset.

This was a commonplace and happy scene that could be seen during several weeks every year, by the end of September and October, until the beginning of November. The almond sacks sold for cash and it was the best income of the year for a lot of them. (This was the reason why the farmer's wife started to go downtown with him to sell the almonds, otherwise the farmer would be left alone in the city with all this cash in his pocket. There was a serious risk, for some, of no new dresses for Christmas that winter)!

Unfortunately, this situation changed very quickly and drastically as soon as the almonds imported from California, USA, started to be commercialised on a big scale at a cheaper price, in Spain, and all over the World.

Then, around the middle 1970s, the demand for our almonds for export dropped drastically. Big stocks remained for months on the Island, without anybody interested in buying them and obviously the price dropped.

This situation hasn't changed since then. Our production is being sold little by little, sent out of the Island all the year around, but the price of the almond never recovered.

The average price in our new Euro currency that a farmer gets for a kilo of almonds is fifty five cents per kilo, the average production for a middle size tree and year, depending on the weather conditions and the type of almond, is about from twelve to twenty kilos That means that the total income per tree is from seven to twelve Euros per year. (More or less the cost of one hour's work of cheap labour, to the farmer, it means at least a full day's job, all together, before he can get the same money for his product).

So, under these circumstances, it is understandable that the almonds don't count much in the peasant's economy anymore, if the farmer and his family can't collect the almonds themselves, they can't afford to pay to have the job done and we can see more and more trees with the almonds remaining wasted.

This is not because of the quality of our almonds. In fact, some of our varieties are supposed to be of the best quality in the world, with a bigger fruit (the real weight of the fruit itself, without the shell, varies, according to the specific variety, from 25 to 30% of its original weight with the shell). They have the sweetest and best flavour of all, also with the best market price, but there are other problems.

It is almost impossible to recognise the variety of the almond just by the tree. It is a job for botanical experts. The difference is in the fruit, the almond itself, and there are at least from twenty four to thirty different varieties of them being cultivated on the Island, some of them exclusively from here, or so say some experts. A single farm may collect ten or twelve different kinds of them, all put and sold together in the same sacks. (It takes at least between two and three trees to fill a standard fifty kilos sack).

There are mainly two different groups, the ones with a hard shell and the soft-shell ones, but there are also important differences in the size, the shape, single grain or twin-grain, etc. They are all sold together at the same price. It is very easy to understand how difficult and expensive it is to work in industrial ways, with machinery, to get a homogenous result of such a big variety. On the other hand, we have the imported almond from California; thousands of tonnes, all homogeneous, of the same kind, much easier to work with and even at a cheaper price; the preferences of the industry are obvious when it comes to buying the product.

Of the different kinds of local almonds and all kinds of products associated with them, including some of our most representative desserts, such as our ancestral "Salsa de Nadal" and the real "King" of the Spanish Christmas, "Turrón", known and exported world-wide, we will hopefully speak in the third and last chapter of "The Almond Tree" in two weeks.

The Good News

I'm very happy to say that in the "Anti-global" manifestation in Barcelona last week, even though there were quite a few injured by the police brutality, just for being there and acting within their rights, as the Spanish Constitution Laws recognise to all Spanish citizens, nobody was put up against the wall and shot.

A Forest of Almond Trees in Bloom at Santa Agnès

José P Ribas