The Resilience of Tunisia’s Endemic Olive Varieties

Fermes Ali Sfar has garnered international acclaim for its Chetoui and Chemlali monovarietals.

Fermes Ali Sfar relies on traditional varieties and milling methods. (Photo: Fermes Ali Sfar)
By Ofeoritse Daibo
Apr. 27, 2024 00:08 UTC
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Fermes Ali Sfar relies on traditional varieties and milling methods. (Photo: Fermes Ali Sfar)

Chetoui and Chemlali are the two main olive tree vari­eties endemic to Tunisia. Olive grow­ers in the increas­ingly hot and dry North African coun­try praise their resilience to cli­mate change.

Despite a sec­ond straight year of heat­waves and drought in Africa’s largest olive oil-pro­duc­ing coun­try, pro­duc­tion rebounded to 220,000 tons, in line with the five-year aver­age.

Chetoui and Chemlali have con­stantly evolved and adapted to the spe­cific cli­matic con­di­tions of their region of ori­gin over time.- Donia Sfar, export man­ager, Fermes Ali Sfar

The resilience of these trees to cli­mate change is due to sev­eral fac­tors, includ­ing their adapt­abil­ity to cur­rent cli­mate con­di­tions and their abil­ity to adapt to chang­ing con­di­tions,” Donia Sfar, the export man­ager of Fermes Ali Sfar, told Olive Oil Times.

The pro­duc­ers behind the award-win­ning fam­ily com­pany have spent the past five decades pro­mot­ing these local vari­eties’ organolep­tic and health­ful qual­i­ties.

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Fermes Ali Sfar’s efforts were rewarded at the 2024 NYIOOC World Olive Oil Competition, with its two Tesoro del Rio organic mono­va­ri­etal brands earn­ing Silver Awards.

Founded in 1970 and passed down three gen­er­a­tions, Fermes Ali Sfar is a fam­ily busi­ness spe­cial­ized in the pro­duc­tion of olive oil and the mar­ket­ing of its own har­vested prod­ucts,” Sfar said.

Fermes Ali Sfar runs three farms that extend more than 485 hectares and com­prise 25,000 olive trees at the base of the Zaghouan moun­tain in the north­east of Tunisia,” she added. The main farm is equipped with a mill that con­tin­ues to press olives the tra­di­tional way, using gran­ite mill­stone and mat press­ing.”

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Fermes Ali Sfar grows 25,000 olive trees on 485 hectares across three farms in northeastern Tunisia. (Photo: Fermes Ali Sfar)

Sfar believes that the com­pa­ny’s suc­cess, which has been awarded at three con­sec­u­tive edi­tions of the World Competition, derives from its focus on Chetoui and Chemlali.

While the two native olive vari­eties are still the most com­monly cul­ti­vated, there has been a recent increase in European vari­eties, such as Arbequina, Coratina and Koroneiki.

Coratina thrives in high-den­sity plan­ta­tions, while Arbequina and Korneiki can be grown at super-high-den­sity, which the gov­ern­ment and some pro­duc­ers view as the future of the country’s olive oil sec­tor.

Chetoui and Chemlali have con­stantly evolved and adapted to the spe­cific cli­matic con­di­tions of their region of ori­gin over time,” she said. Drought tol­er­ance, a cru­cial fac­tor for the sur­vival of cul­ti­va­tion, means Chetoui and Chemlali olive trees can sur­vive under con­di­tions of increased water stress.”

The two vari­eties are also remark­ably resilient to com­mon pests and dis­eases, which are inher­ently infre­quent due to Tunisia’s cli­mate. The com­bi­na­tion of fac­tors has made Tunisia the world’s largest pro­ducer of organic extra vir­gin olive oil.

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Quality awards raise awareness of branded Tunisian extra virgin olive oils. (Photo: Fermes Ali Sfar)

Along with their drought and dis­ease resilience, Sfar said Chetoui and Chemlali demon­strate remark­able phe­no­log­i­cal flex­i­bil­ity.

The abil­ity for these olive vari­eties to adjust their growth cycle in response to cli­matic vari­a­tions is a key ele­ment of their resilience,” she said. Chetoui and Chemlali are known for their phe­no­log­i­cal flex­i­bil­ity, mean­ing they can adapt to chang­ing weather con­di­tions by adjust­ing the tim­ing of flow­er­ing and fruit­ing.”

Despite the resilience and adapt­abil­ity of the Chetoui and Chemlali olive vari­eties, Sfar said that con­sis­tently pro­duc­ing high-qual­ity extra vir­gin olive oil remains a com­plex and demand­ing process in Tunisia.

Since ensur­ing the qual­ity of the olive oil begins with the olives, she said the com­pany har­vests at the opti­mal time of matu­rity,” often sac­ri­fic­ing quan­tity for qual­ity.

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Our olives are processed quickly after har­vest to avoid dete­ri­o­ra­tion and oxi­da­tion,” Sfar said. This rapid pro­cess­ing is essen­tial to pre­serve the aro­mas, fla­vors and ben­e­fi­cial com­pounds of our olive oil.”

Once extracted, our olive oil is stored under appro­pri­ate con­di­tions to avoid oxi­da­tion and dete­ri­o­ra­tion and main­tain its qual­ity,” she added. Finally, our qual­ity con­trol is car­ried out rig­or­ously to ensure that our prod­uct meets the high­est stan­dards.”

Undertaking this process each year takes time and expense, increas­ing the value of the olive oil qual­ity awards to the com­pany.

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The endemic Chetoui and Chemlali varieties have proven resilient to Tunisia’s changing climate. (Photo: Fermes Ali Sfar)

Winning an award at the NYIOOC can only be a source of immense pride and sat­is­fac­tion,” Sfar con­firmed. This rep­re­sents recog­ni­tion of our exper­tise, know-how and com­mit­ment to pro­duc­ing qual­ity olive oil.”

While the vast major­ity of Tunisian olive oil is exported in bulk to Spain and Italy to be blended, bot­tled and sold under European brands, Fermes Ali Sfar is part of a grow­ing con­tin­gent of pro­duc­ers shift­ing toward indi­vid­u­ally pack­aged exports, which pro­vide more eco­nomic value to local farm­ers and millers.

These awards give addi­tional cred­i­bil­ity to our brands and allow us to stand out in a com­pet­i­tive mar­ket and attract the atten­tion of con­sumers look­ing for qual­ity and authen­tic­ity,” Sfar said.

The recog­ni­tion gained from this vic­tory can open up new busi­ness oppor­tu­ni­ties,” she con­cluded. This could include an even stronger expan­sion of our inter­na­tional mar­ket pres­ence, access to new dis­tri­b­u­tion chan­nels or even part­ner­ships with more com­pa­nies.”


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