Olives at the cutting edge

Olives grown in hedges.

Some things never change – or so we thought. Olive cultivation around the Mediterranean has been more or less unchanged for 5,000 years : you take a cutting, stick it in the ground, and wait five years. No water or fertilizer are required, just insect pests to fight off. You prune every year, and harvest by hitting the branches with sticks. Repeat, for century after century.

Credit: Flickr user Abariltur

Other trees quite like these near the mouth of the Ebro are claimed to be contemporary with Virgil, who wrote about olives in the Georgics, praising their tolerance of poor soil:

First your stubborn lands
And churlish hill-sides, where are thorny fields
Of meagre marl and gravel, these delight
In long-lived olive-groves to Pallas dear.

Sic transit. In our drive north this summer, we went looking for posh olive oil for presents, and found our upmarket grove in suitably “churlish hillsides” south of Llerida – here:

This hedge-like planting is common in fruit orchards, as it makes pruning, spraying and harvesting much easier. Dwarfing stock has long been available for many fruit; the vigorous cherry succumbed in 1965.  Olives will grow as grafts (dixit Virgil) but usually are not, and he warns against letting the obvious stock, wild olives, into your grove (obscurely, for the fire risk). These are very vigorous trees, as here at El Rocio near Seville:

Grafting on to such stock defeats the object. So as in Virgil’s time olives are grown on their own roots from cuttings. The story is not a new stock but new varieties. Professor Giuseppe Fontanazza at the Olive Research Centre in Perugia (which for all I know may be a dystopian hotbed of vicious academic intrigue, soulless higher-ed managerialism, and layabout/overpoliticised/careerist students, but I prefer to believe in the bucolic Umbrian idyll) has bred a new dwarf variety, FS I17. Spanish colleagues have followed suit, selecting dwarf cultivars of Arbequina and Arbosana.
The owner of this grove, Hacienda Iber, is a high-end niche producer aiming at international competitions. Sadly but understandably, they closed the doubtless picturesque former onsite mill, and truck the crop to a state-of-the-art facility somewhere else, doubtless all stainless steel Swedish machinery. At this level, growers have to be control freaks  – some Aussie winegrowers harvest at night. Hedge cultivation gives you precisely that: control. The advantages hold for all producers on any scale, so I’m afraid the “timeless” Mediterranean landscape will now change.

I do not think Virgil would have protested; he valued the sheer skill of good husbandry too much. The Cordoba House nonsense will blow over in a week, leaving a nasty taste. Fontanazza’s work will last for centuries. It deserves Virgil’s praise and ours. For the Italian countryside he celebrated was and is man-made. There is negligible wilderness in Europe outside high mountains and the forests of eastern Poland. The aim cannot be to leave Nature alone, it’s too late for that, but to work with her to produce utility and beauty together. Everything in the Mediterranean landscape is a tool, and nothing is just a tool.

Pushpine and restoring the Mata Atlantica

A proposal for carbon offsets in the Brazilian Atlantic Forest.

The death toll in the Rio favelas from floods and mudslides – now at least 205 – would have been much greater but for an extraordinary achievement a century ago of six anonymous slaves under the generally undistinguished Brazilian Empire:

From the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, tropical forest in Rio de Janeiro was gradually substituted by sugarcane, coffee plantations, and pastureland. Intense land use and deforestation caused problems in the city’s water supply. Mainly for this reason, Manuel Gomes Archer was hired at the end of the nineteenth century by Emperor D. Pedro II to start a flora restoration project. From 1862 to 1874, Archer and a few slaves planted about 72,000 seedlings of native and exotic tree species, e.g., palms, bamboos, cedro rosa, jacaranda, sapucaia, jaqueira, and eucaliptus. Seedling sources were located in the Paineiras Forest, Archer’s farm in Guaratiba, and in the Botanical Garden of Rio de Janeiro. …. The result was an environment conducive to natural forest regeneration. This was because heterogeneous and predominantly native species of trees were used in this project, unlike the procedure usually followed in forest plantation at that time.

(Here, edited to remove learned apparatus).

The steep hillsides round which the bairros of the city flow are now the Tijuca National Park, one of the largest urban forests in the world. More than half the flood deaths occurred in the twin city of Niteroi across the bay, which is  much smaller and flatter but doesn´t include any of the park – I infer that well-established forest offers better protection than scrub.
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Hunter-gatherers tame the truffle

French scientists tame the black truffle.

Via Brad deLong, a report by Nicholas Wade for the NYT that determined hunter-gatherers, in the shape of Dr Francis Martin of the University of Nancy, are at last making progress in domesticating the black truffle. DNA analysis has revealed that truffles need sex, contrary to the previous CW. So inoculation of oak tree roots may work better, assuming Dr. Martin can help you tell a girl truffle from a boy truffle.

Two more mycological insights to turn you off your expensive dinner.

The fungus’s major concern is to spread its spores, a matter of some technical difficulty for an organism that lives underground. So it produces the redolent odors that will compel surface dwellers of all kinds to search for it, eat it and distribute its spores after they have dined.

So modern human gourmets are a dead loss from the truffle´s point of view, since we gave up retiring behind an oak tree to recycle our waste constructively and instead sterilise it in giant sewage works.

Second, the added protein.

..There are the truffle flies which lay their eggs in the truffle. From the fungus’s perspective, the insects are just another way of spreading its spores. So it attracts them by releasing anisole and veratrole, two insect pheromones, when the truffle has reached maturity. Truffles can often be detected by looking for congregations of truffle flies.

Don’t the fly’s eggs and larvae degrade the edibility of the truffle? It seems the opposite is the case. “If collected at late maturation stages, the truffles will likely carry eggs and larvae — adding proteins and aroma to the truffle,” Dr. Martin said.

Bon appetit.

Tom Vilsack, Climate, and Agriculture: The Opportunity

Climate and Agriculture: It’s not what progressives can get from Tom Vilsack; it’s what Tom Vilsack can get from progressives.

A few days ago I posted an excerpt from a Council on Foreign Relations study group report on climate, which was chaired by incoming Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack. My conclusion was that there was promise, but that we still don’t know which way Vilsack will go, especially because like most reports this could be read in different ways.

First, Gristmill today has an excellent essay by a progressive Iowa food policy advocate about her experience with Vilsack. Bottom line: Vilsack is not a progressive, but he is intelligent, sympathetic, open-minded, fair, and willing to listen.

This shouldn’t be surprising, and it opens up opportunities. Policy advocates work within a political context, and administrations create policy space and opportunities in which they can operate. See, e.g., the Kennedy Administration and civil rights. We’ve gotten used to a Cheney model for 8 years, where the base is in control. But we shouldn’t expect it.

Important fact in the essay: Vilsack was the first Democratic Iowa Governor in forty years. That certainly tells us a lot about the policy space in which he operated.

Second, I received a nice response from Michael Levi, the Director of CFR’s Energy Security and Climate Change Program, fleshing out some background, although he emphasizes that this is his take and not an official Council interpretation:

The group was generally against biofuel tariffs, but wanted to make sure it wasn’t promoting steps that would lead to net greenhouse gas emission increases. As you know, there have been several serious studies that claim greater demand for biofuels — which cutting tariffs would induce — would do just that, because of emissions from land use change. The relationship is hard to pin down precisely, because it’s indirect: land used for pasture can be converted to biofuels, and forests can then get cut down to create new land for pasture.

That led to the package-deal suggestion. We didn’t have a grand UN deal in mind (we favored a good UN deal but we skeptical one can be had any time soon) nor did we advocate developing country caps (we actually warned against seeking them). We did imagine, for example, a side deal where tariffs were lowered and Brazil committed to take certain steps to stem deforestation. We wanted to leave things open, though, to creative diplomacy that might find other deals that worked and moved things forward.

At the same time, we were aware that some use the land-use argument as a cover for a much more base protectionist stance. Hence the statement that standards for biofuels should apply equally to domestic and to foreign biofuels. The recommendation that such standards be harmonized wasn’t a condition — it was a separate recommendation. The task force recommendations would stand unchanged even if standards couldn’t be harmonized.

On “conventional” corn-based ethanol: Conventional corn ethanol is the stuff that’s commercial today. It obviously has real problems. But cellulosic ethanol can potentially be made from corn stover, the cornstalks and other material that’s left in the field after the actual ears of corn have been harvested. It has the potential (in theory) to be a low-lifecycle-emissions fuel source that doesn’t displace food production. We wanted to make sure that didn’t get swept into our statement, since it’s far from a mature technology.

That certainly makes things clearer: the question is how much Vilsack will fight for these things. Or perhaps how advocates will be able to get him to fight for these things.

The economics of Neolithic ham

Spanish bellota ham, a profitable neolithic technology.

Many Spanish households keep a whole cured ham, taken out when they need a few slices for a tapa or a sandwich. We have joined them, and a shoulder (paleta) of Jabugo ham sits on a worktop in the utility room, its black cloven hoof sticking out of the tea-towel that is all we need to protect it for several months.

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