Producer Profiles

Corsica Producer Fears Mediterranean Culture Under Threat

Producers in Corsica are at the mercy of policy measures to contain Xylella fastidiosa on the island. Some fear these new policies are damaging the island's olive-producing culture.

The landscape of Linguizzetta. Photo courtesy of Pierre Bona
Dec. 4, 2019
By Isabel Putinja
The landscape of Linguizzetta. Photo courtesy of Pierre Bona

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For olive oil to be labeled extra vir­gin, there is a list of inter­na­tion­ally rec­og­nized qual­ity stan­dards that it must sat­isfy. How­ever, for French pro­ducer Emi­lie Borel, cre­at­ing an extra vir­gin olive oil is much more than ful­fill­ing a set of cri­te­ria.

Extra vir­gin olive oil starts with the per­son,” she told Olive Oil Times. It’s some­thing you grow up with, look at, and touch. The olives are hand­picked. It’s a cul­ture, a Mediter­ranean cul­ture.”

Then there’s the cul­ture of taste,” she added. This is some­thing you develop by edu­cat­ing your­self. It’s not only about rules and reg­u­la­tions and lists to adhere to. I’m try­ing to main­tain this cul­ture because it’s part of our Mediter­ranean her­itage.”

I wrote the story of our olive farm because I had had enough and wanted to share our expe­ri­ences as pro­duc­ers of extra vir­gin olive oil and the real­i­ties we face.- Emi­lie Borel, pro­ducer at Oltremonti

After a child­hood spent on four con­ti­nents and an inter­na­tional career as a devel­op­ment aid worker, Borel decided that her place was in the Mediter­ranean, where she was born. In 2006, she bought land in the munic­i­pal­ity of Lin­guizzetta on the east­ern coast of the French island of Cor­sica and sin­gle-hand­edly planted her first 1,000 olive trees.

Once her olive farm, Oltremonti, was born on this patch of land tucked between the moun­tains and the sea, it became an all-encom­pass­ing pas­sion. She met her Ital­ian hus­band Ivo Berta, an olive oil expert and mill tech­ni­cian — thanks to her olive trees — and their daugh­ter, Thea, is grow­ing up among the trees they have nur­tured together.

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Today, Oltremonti is com­posed of 3,890 trees and has its own on-site mill. The extra vir­gin olive oil pro­duced here has won a long list of awards.

See more: Olive Oil Cul­ture

But Borel fears that the Mediter­ranean cul­ture of the olive she has labored to pre­serve is in dan­ger of dying out. She recently pub­lished a book in French, Les Secrets de l’O­livier, which tells the story of how her pas­sion for the olive tree was kin­dled and the many tri­als and mile­stones of her olive farm.

Emilie Borel (photo by Sylvain Alessandri)

Olive pro­duc­ers around the world face the chal­lenges of unpre­dictable har­vests, unsta­ble incomes, and bat­tles with the nat­ural ele­ments in the face of cli­mate change. How­ever, Borel has also had to deal with hos­til­ity from mem­bers of this insu­lar island com­mu­nity as an out­sider” and count­less admin­is­tra­tive hur­dles.

The biggest of these obsta­cles came with the pol­icy mea­sures intro­duced by the French gov­ern­ment since 2015 to con­tain Xylella fas­tidiosa on the island. Today the olive farm she planted and nur­tured for more than a decade is under threat.

The first case of a strain of Xylella fas­tidiosa called mul­ti­plex was dis­cov­ered in July 2015 in myr­tle-leaf milk­wort plants on the south­west coast of Cor­sica. Six months later, two more cases were detected in south­ern Cor­sica and by the end of the year, there were 194 con­firmed infec­tions on the island.

At first, a buffer zone of 10 kilo­me­ters (6.2 miles) was imposed in order to con­tain the spread of the bac­terium, but this was later extended to the whole island.

As a result of this agri­cul­tural cri­sis and the threat of new infec­tions, it has since become ille­gal to import more than 200 dif­fer­ent types of plants to Cor­sica, includ­ing the olive tree. Requests to be exempted from this rule can be made by pro­duc­ers and a com­pen­sa­tion pro­gram was put in place by the gov­ern­ment to indem­nify them for their losses.

How­ever, Borel’s requests for autho­riza­tion to extend her olive plan­ta­tion and the let­ter she wrote to the French pres­i­dent about her olive far­m’s predica­ment have fallen on deaf ears.

We have asked for per­mis­sion from the state to plant olive trees but were refused, so we have to repro­duce them on our own,” she said. This takes years. The gov­ern­ment had promised com­pen­sa­tion for our losses but they haven’t hon­ored their promise. The indem­nity we expected never came. This is the worst thing you can do to farm­ers: cut the ground from under their feet by telling them they can’t plant and mak­ing them expect some­thing that never comes.”

Prior to the cri­sis, olive trees were imported from Italy but this is now ille­gal.

I first planted Fran­toio trees from Tus­cany,” Borel said. This is what’s gen­er­ally advised because Fran­toio is believed to be equiv­a­lent to our native Ghjer­mana, but I later found out this is not true. When we called upon Clau­dio Can­tini of the Ital­ian National Research Coun­cil to come to the island, he ana­lyzed the Ghjer­mana vari­ety and found out that its DNA is com­pletely dif­fer­ent.”

We thought our agri­cul­tural research insti­tute would be inter­ested in these find­ings but there was no response,” she added. Although it may not have had the means to con­duct such analy­ses at the time, there was now a good rea­son to under­take DNA research. Yet, despite a recent state-funded project to give Cor­sica its own plant nurs­ery, no dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion was made between the two vari­eties.”

In the spring of 2014, Borel and her hus­band planted a sec­ond par­cel of land with vari­eties native to the island: Ghjer­mana de Cas­inca, Ghjer­mana de Tal­lano and Sabina. Hav­ing estab­lished their own method of repro­duc­ing local cul­ti­vars, these were grown from cut­tings taken from ancient trees in a semi-aban­doned grove Borel had dis­cov­ered near the vil­lage of Monte, in the north­east of the island, and in the south­ern region of Sainte Lucie de Tal­lano.

Photo by Sylvain Alessandri

Since there was no nurs­ery in Cor­sica that could repro­duce the trees, they sent the cut­tings to Tus­cany, where they were grown in a con­trolled and super­vised envi­ron­ment before they were sent back to Cor­sica to be planted.

We lost all the trees we sent to Tus­cany just before the 2015 cri­sis because now it’s ille­gal to bring them back to Cor­sica,” Borel said. There have actu­ally been no cases of Xylella fas­tidiosa here, only the mul­ti­plex vari­ant, which has attacked shrubs. This is a vari­ant of Xylella fas­tidiosa that has­n’t attacked olive trees in our region.”

In fact, two sci­en­tific com­mis­sions came to the island to inves­ti­gate the issue and declared that the mul­ti­plex vari­ant has been present on the island for 60 years, but no one had looked for it before.” she said. On an island it’s nor­mal to take pre­cau­tions and fear dis­eases but we can’t just stop plant­ing. In other coun­tries there are plan­ta­tion dri­ves to com­bat global warm­ing.”

The Xylella fas­tidiosa cri­sis arrived in Cor­sica just when Oltremonti was begin­ning to thrive. A loan pro­vided the finance needed for the con­struc­tion of the on-site mill and an exten­sion of the groves was planted with vari­eties native to the island.

With all the prob­lems we’ve faced, includ­ing from the hos­tile local envi­ron­ment, we’ve come up short and are strug­gling to pay it back,” Borel said.

The cou­ple sold a par­cel of their land to try to make ends meet, but the author­i­ties remain silent with regard to their case and the com­pen­sa­tion that was pledged.

I wrote the story of our olive farm because I had had enough and wanted to share our expe­ri­ences as pro­duc­ers of extra vir­gin olive oil and the real­i­ties we face,” Borel said about her recent book.

Every civ­i­liza­tion has respected the olive tree. It’s part of our cul­ture and our way of life,” she added. Today we need to get autho­riza­tion to plant an olive tree, and while new olive pro­duc­ing coun­tries emerge, we must put up with absurd laws and rules in order to con­tinue what tra­di­tion­ally we have always known to do.”


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