CHITLANG VALLEY, NEPAL(AFP): When Nepal’s first olive farm opened to produce extra-virgin oil from trees planted on the slopes of the Himalayas, the sceptics said it couldn’t be done.
But 17 years later Himalaya Plantations — the country’s only producer — expects to turn its first profit, marking an unlikely success which the company hopes may one day help boost agriculture in one of the world’s poorest nations.
“All the experts told us we were mad, that it would never work because we didn’t have the Mediterranean conditions,” said Hartmut Bauder, the company’s German founder. Bauder, who grew up in southern France, spent 18 years working in Mumbai as a manager in the chemical industry before deciding aged 57 he wanted to pursue his dream — but it has not proved easy.
“When we were in Mumbai we always had to bring our olive oil from Europe. I was always asking why there was no Indian olive oil but there was none,” he said.
Bauder eventually discovered an Italian olive project in northern India and took its experts to carry out feasibility studies for an olive plantation in Nepal.
He searched for a year to find suitable land for Himalaya Plantations before choosing the idyllic Chitlang valley, an ancient settlement of the Kathmandu valley’s indigenous Newar people, southwest of the capital.
“It had to be 25-37 acres maximum, not more than three hours from Kathmandu, not too far from roads, power and water, facing south and at an altitude of between 1,000 and 2,000 metres because olives need cold in winter,” he said.
Bauder, who has been married for 38 years to his Nepali partner, Promila, started with 10 hectares in two separate areas, which he named Tuscany and Vinci after famous Italian olive oil-growing areas.
The couple, who live with a Daschund and a herd of alpacas in Kathmandu, began planting in 1996, with 2,300 trees, initially budgeting for an outlay of 20 million rupees (RM833,000).
Costs began to spiral, however, as the company fought a long battle with anthracnose, a common fungus that is the bane of farmers around the world.
“I had no idea about agriculture, horticulture or olives. I thought that you plant a tree and it grows, you harvest and you make oil. We learned the hard way that it is not that easy,” he said.
“Many foreigners came from Italy, France and Spain to see what we were doing here and they were supposed to be experts in olives but everyone tells you a different story.”
Bauder was about to throw in the towel but his fortunes changed after a chance meeting with one of the world’s top olive experts.
Gideon Peleg, the Israeli technical director of a plantation in northern India, offered Bauder his services as a consultant, introducing individual drip irrigation and changing the company’s pruning and fertiliser techniques.
“We spent a lot of time and money not achieving anything but we learned from these mistakes and after about seven years we had fruit and we made oil — between 100 and 200 litres per year,” he said.
Himalaya Plantations has at last begun to turn the corner after a bumper yield in 2010, and Bauder sees his oil, which retails at 1,150 rupees for a half-litre bottle, earning its first profit this year.
“We have never made a profit until now. Hopefully we’ll do more than break even this year,” he said.
The journey to Himalayan Plantations is via narrow, rubble-strewn lanes carved into the hillside, while the site itself has beautiful rolling hills blanketed by silvery-grey olive trees.
Bauder says his olives are unrivalled because three months of monsoon rain followed by abundant sunshine, with temperatures ranging from -2C to 37C, make conditions the opposite of those on the Mediterranean.
The result, he says, is a uniquely Nepalese flavour reflecting the pristine air and soil quality in the Himalayas.
Bauder started with 12 employees, which he has reduced over the years to a dedicated band of five workers and their manager.
“Two have been with us 14 years and have learned over the years how to prune and spray, and they have also learned to a certain extent how to read the trees,” he said.
He hopes to encourage a change in food culture in Nepal, where cheap, low-quality Spanish oil is popular, but says the government has been unwilling to invest in training for other farmers.
In the face of difficulties in expanding in Nepal, Bauder is eyeing up the international market and has already built up sales in east Asia.
“We have one of the best oils in the world,” he said.
“Like with wine, the soil counts, the air counts. All these contribute to the quality of the product and with these coming together we seem to have a fantastic oil.”
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