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Olive emergency situations: to learn from Syrian experience

The techniques developed in Syria to cope the rising temperatures and water shortages may be useful in different drought Countries. Keith Richmond tells us some details on types of farming, pruning and fertilizing with natural limestone powder

Increasing temperatures and a growing shortage of water are going to be with us for some time to come, so perhaps it is useful now to start looking at how others cope with these problems. Syrian farmers have faced heat and semi-arid conditions for many, many years and have developed practical responses that may be worth adapting for use in Italy and elsewhere.

Olive grove with trees unpruned or pruned very little

During a visit to Syria last year I had the opportunity to visit one of the prime olive-growing areas around the town of Idlib some 70 kilometres southwest of Aleppo. Along the way there I had noticed that the olive trees were an unusual shape, almost globe-like on their trunks, and later I learned that they are pruned this way deliberately. There is no attempt to keep the centre of the tree open with three or four main branch systems sticking up like fingers; on the contrary, the top of the tree is allowed to close and the vegetation is kept thick to protect the branches and trunk from the sun. Pruning is thus kept to the minimum.

Olive tree with limestone dust spread around the base

Another technique practised in that part of Syria concerns mulching. In that semi-arid climate there is not much ground vegetation in the olive grove that can be used as mulch, so the farmers have come up with a simple, if laborious, solution: spreading limestone dust. There are two sources of this dust readily available, of which one is that obtained from houses that were built of this stone but have collapsed.

Protection around the base of an olive tree

The main source is the landscape itself. This is limestone country, so the stone is taken from marginal lands (under red soil) and crushed. The limestone dust obtained from either source is then taken out to the fields, where it is distributed around the base of the olive trees as if it were vegetable matter.

Damage caused by the sun

While the limestone may not decay in the beneficial way that grass and weeds do, it does bring important benefits. First, it retains whatever moisture there is in the ground by protecting the soil from the sun. Second, being light in colour it reflects sunlight up into the heart of the tree (which is almost closed on top because of the pruning method mentioned above).

General view of an olive grove near Idlib

Finally, this very process of reflecting light discourages some of the unwelcome insects. Care has to be taken though not to use too much as an excess of calcium can have undesirable side effects.

by Keith Richmond
04 october 2010, Technical Area > Olive & Oil