Apples in Morocco
A call for help can be an invitation to a rewarding experience.
Apples are interplanted with other crops in the remote Ait Bouguemez Valley in Morocco.
Almost on a daily basis we are invited to help people who are less fortunate. Our mailboxes (both virtual and snail mail) are often full of opportunities to help, so when an unsolicited message from a Mrs. Riley came across my computer a couple of months ago I was ready to hit the delete key. I am very glad that I did not. Mrs. Riley wrote…
“I was just recently in southern Morocco in one of the most beautiful valleys I have ever seen, called Ait Bouguemez. It is a valley in between the High Atlas and Middle Atlas mountain ranges. It is absolutely glorious. It is also very remote, isolated, and poor. Until five years ago, there were not even any roads to the region. The people there are wonderful, hard working, but very poor, as you can imagine. It is really a magical place— peaceful and lovely. I spoke to the local gendarme there who told me there was NO crime; literally nothing, none at all, not even petty theft! The pride and joy of the people of this valley is the apples that they grow. They are absolutely delicious and out of this world. The apples are their main source of income. The problem is, once the apples are ready to harvest, they are harvested and sold all at once. There are no refrigeration units at all, so that as you can imagine, the price, once that apples are ready, is very cheap, since all the apples are sold at once. And, of course, a lot of the apples simply do not sell and end up rotting.”
Mrs. Riley, it turned out, is the wife of Ambassador Thomas Riley, the U.S. Ambassador to Morocco. At her invitation, Nick Stephens (a local pest management consultant) and I spent the last week of July in Morocco talking with these growers, and explaining how they can improve their fruit production.
At first, I was reluctant to accept Mrs. Riley’s invitation for fear that by stimulating local apple production I might impact the sale of Washington State apples to Morocco. I was reminded that when Dr. Don McKenzie, the famous New Zealand pomologist, came to Washington to speak on Granny Smith apple production practices in the 1970s, he was roundly criticized by his growers for giving away production “secrets.” His response was that consumers did not care about where the apple was grown, but rather whether the apple was edible, and every edible apple invites a consumer to return to buy more. Thus, I accepted Mrs. Riley’s invitation to visit Morocco.
A few Washington State apple growers have accepted invitations to work with growers in other countries and those I have spoken with have said that they learned more than they imparted. Washington apple growers have gone to Azerbaijan, Armenia, Afghanistan, Iran, and Bulgaria to share information on apple production. None of these countries will become a major threat to our apple sales, but our knowledge may help a few growers in other countries survive financially as they introduce consumers to better-eating apples. Equally important, our understanding of conditions in other countries and other cultures helps us grow as individuals and as a nation.
I am convinced it is time for our industry to promote a young fruit grower exchange program. I am aware that a few young growers from Washington have worked in New Zealand, and some young people have come here from other growing districts around the world. Those I have spoken with have learned a great deal about both pomology and the world from their experiences. I am willing to help advance this idea.
In the middle Atlas mountain valley of Ait Bouguemez of Morocco we were appreciated for our efforts to address their challenges. This high valley at 1,800 meters (5,900 feet) has good soil and water, and a climate much like that of Washington State. The road to the valley was first paved in 2001, and electricity was brought there in 2002. Apple growing, which began very recently, has taken its place beside the centuries-old traditions of grain cultivation and animal husbandry on very small mixed farms. What amazing changes these people have gone through in just a few years!
Apple trees can be purchased at approved nurseries, but most growers cannot afford them since these trees cost ten times as much as trees they can buy in the local market. That the market trees are of an unknown rootstock and cultivar has not been as important as the price. The largest growers have around 3,000 trees, and these growers would most likely have purchased trees from a nursery.
The trees are interplanted with crops for livestock. Women cut the crops by hand and carry huge loads on their backs or transport them by donkey to their homes. Water management is dictated by the intercrop, not by the trees as one might suspect. Trees are often planted with the bud union below the soil and most orchards are flood-irrigated, which stimulates crown rot.
Trees are very vigorous and columnar since there is little limb spreading. Thinning is too little and too late, so alternate bearing is a problem.
Pest management is dictated by attempts to control codling moth with synthetic pyrethroids, which are used extensively due to human safety and low cost. Spray material is siphoned from open barrels using hand wands powered by small motors. Mites are a huge problem with no predators and parasites to be found. It reminded me of Washington State before integrated pest management. There is a research facility with knowledgeable scientists located at a site four hours’ drive from the valley, but no outreach from the government to the growers. The growers have much to learn.
I was impressed with the efforts of the Ambassador and Mrs. Riley. They have teamed up to work with a Moroccan surgeon to provide help for the crippled people of the countryside. Together they have established a workshop of handicapped people to make prosthetic devices. Nick and I were privileged to be present at a meeting during which prosthetic devices were distributed to people for the first time. Tears of gratitude did much to improve the image of the United States in the eyes of these people.
Our trip gave us a better understanding of hard-scrabble farming and increased our respect for the people doing it the hard way. Take a closer look when those requests for assistance come your way—who knows how you may benefit from helping others!