The date harvest will soon start in the oases of southern Tunisia. It marks the beginning of a very exciting time.
In Barghoutia, a village on the northern edge of the Sahara with about 400 inhabitants, there is an oasis with palm gardens hidden among the barren land and occasional dry shrubs.
In this oasis, the date palms grow up to 20 metres high. The gardens are fenced in with dried palm leaves to protect them from the dunes. It is green and full of life. The trees are loaded with date bushes. In these last few weeks before the start of the harvest season, one can hardly imagine the hustle and bustle that will replace the calm.
The local farmers are busy tending to their date trees, checking the panicles and making final preparations. A farming family usually owns no more than 1 hectare of land, which provides enough space for around 100 trees – with up to 150 kg of dates harvested per tree. There is only one harvest per year, so everything has to go smoothly.
Agricultural engineers from our Tunisian partner company South Organic come to the oasis several times a year to train approximately 200 farmers and bring the latest farming knowledge to this remote region. South Organic also purchases dates from them. The farmers get a contract with the company, which is the only way to ensure the effectiveness of the internal control system for organic and fair trade certifications.
The farming families help each other and work together. Yet during the harvest season from October to December, the workload is too much for them alone – several hundred date palms have to be harvested within a few days! That's why South Organic sends temporary workers to the oasis. Around 100 men and women help cut off the panicles, collect fallen dates and make the first selection. Taieb Foudhaili, the CEO of South Organic, explains: "Two to three years after the revolution, it was harder to hire people as seasonal workers. The government gave young people money back then, so they didn't have to go to work. But that’s over now, and more people are travelling again, so we can employ people from the surrounding regions."
After the harvest, the dates are immediately transported to the small town of Kebili, where South Organic has a processing plant with cooling chambers. Cooling the dates immediately after the harvest is very important, because the quality would otherwise be badly affected in the desert-like climate. This also decreases the risk of pest infestation.
Things get very busy. Around 120 people, mostly women, are employed during and up to a few months after the harvest. This is in addition to roughly 80 permanent employees. Batch after batch of dates are taken out of the cooling chambers to be sorted again and carefully checked. The employees are trained to quickly and correctly classify the quality of the dates and to process them accordingly. Dates of the best quality are pitted by hand for the most part. Those that don’t meet the strict requirements for the EU market are processed further – into date paste, date pieces and so on. Dates that don’t meet the requirements for those purposes are later used as feed for goats and sheep.
A higher quality standard has been specially created for the popular panicle dates from gebana. Above the best quality, there is an extra category that has to meet even stricter quality requirements for customers. The dates are particularly juicy. The honey-sweet fruits are left on the panicle so that they don’t dry out. They are always the first to be sent to customers.
After quality control, the dates are placed in a low-oxygen chamber for about three days to remove any potential pests while preserving quality. The dates are then immediately packaged and shipped out so that customers can enjoy them before Christmas.
Read about gebana’s 14-year history in Tunisia here (link in German).
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