Trial plantation to slash cork growing times
Amorim, the world’s largest cork producer, is to take part in a trial cork tree plantation in Portugal that will cut growing times by 15 years.
The cork used for making stoppers comes from the bark of the cork oak, Quercus suber, and currently can’t be harvested until 34 years after the tree has been planted.
This first harvest comes after 25 years, but the bark from this initial growth is not good enough for making cork stoppers, and it is not until the second harvest, which is nine years later (by law), that the bark has the right level of smoothness and elasticity for turning into a stopper – and then the bark can be harvested every nine years until it stops regenerating after around 250 years.
However, Amorim is partnering with 10 of the largest cork growers to plant a trial 250 hectares of cork forest that will produce a harvest after an initial 10 years, a 60% reduction on the current establishment period.
The new plantation will also be significantly more intensive than the existing cork forest habitat, which sees cork trees sparsely planted among pine and olive trees, along with pasture and Mediterranean scrubland.
According to company chairman Antonio Amorim, drip irrigation is being used to speed up the establishment of the trees and their bark after planting.
“Cork forests today are a difficult business because you have a to wait a long time, but if we can bring down the initial cycle from 25 years to 8-10 years, then we will become investors [in the cork trees, as opposed to just the production of stoppers],” he told the drinks business.
To speed up the growth, Antonio said that drip irrigation with sensors would apply water when the tree needs it, and then, once the cork oak is established, the irrigation would gradually be reduced to zero and the tree would revert to a nine-year cycle of bark growth and removal, which is what the Portuguese law stipulates.
He also said that the experimental plot would look “like an orchard” and contain 625 trees per hectare, compared to the 60-130 trees per hectare in the average cork forest today.
After establishment however, Antonio said they would select the strongest trees and reduce the planting density to 450 trees/ha.
“We are going to set up the first 250 hectares this autumn and I’m sure that in 8-10 years we will have a harvest from the cork trees,” he stated.
However, he also told db that Amorim would need significantly more oaks to satisfy his projected increase in demand for cork stoppers.
“We need to do 100,000 hectares of plantings over a period of time,” he said, telling db that he wants to grow Amorim sales by “another 1 billion cork stoppers by 2020”.