Retired jeweller Sam Cremona's brainchild, the Project for the Revival of the Indigenous Maltese Olive (Primo), is at an "interesting stage" and is just three years away from its interim target of 10,000 trees producing the Bidnija olive.
"We need to have 30,000 trees producing olives all over Malta to claim we have an industry," Mr Cremona explains in the grove at his Wardija home. "But it is coming along nicely. Once the industry truly gets off the ground, it will encourage more people to plant trees and the industry will grow even further.
"When the product is well and truly on the market, I hope there will be an environmental revolution in Malta. I like to think there will come a time when we will run out of land to plant more trees. In Roman times, Malta produced great quantities of oil for export. It was an economic cornerstone; that is why half our old villages and towns are named after the olive."
By "well and truly on the market", Mr Cremona means a fully-fledged industry. It is a phrase that veils the remarkable success Primo has registered since it kicked off in January 2003. Over 280 applications have been filed by landowners, part-time farmers and home-owners with extensive gardens, for a total of 24,000 trees. Mr Cremona says an average 1,200 saplings - all grafted and supplied for free - have been planted every year since the planting stage of the project began in 2006 and there is a long waiting list for saplings.
Interest in the variety has even been expressed by Maltese ex-pats in Australia and some landowners in South Africa.
The groundwork for the project involved setting up a genetic bank of mother trees, using cuttings from 2,000-year-old trees to graft 6,000 rootstock imported from Bari. The genetic bank now boasts trees planted in Wardija, Ghammieri, Mgarr, Dwejra, Siggiewi, Bahar ic-Caghaq, Tarxien and Zurrieq, and allows Mr Cremona and his collaborators within the Ministry of Agriculture to graft around 3,000 saplings from this year.
Bank of Valletta had entered into discussions with Mr Cremona when the project was still in its early stages. Recognising the importance of establishing the genetic bank, BoV committed itself to the production of the first 6,000 trees. The bank closely monitored every step of the process that led to the planting of the trees, which included producing the cuttings, importing the rootstock and grafting the saplings.
The project was also supported by a promotional campaign that confirmed that there was a huge demand for trees. BoV are supporting Mr Cremona in his efforts to meet demand in the least possible time.
Meanwhile, to cultivate more expertise to keep the planting going, Mr Cremona is now planning to run a course in grafting, a technique many people find daunting.
"It's a matter of getting the hang of it," he says. "It's really quite straightforward. Ten participants in each course will have two tutors and there will be some theory before the practical sessions. The people attending the course against a fee will then keep the saplings so that they can plant them and hopefully take to grafting and planting more trees."
The progress is relentless: planting took place last October and November and more saplings are being planted this month in various localities around the island. Trees bear a good amount of fruit within six years, with quantities varying between 40 to 60 kilos per tree. Two tonnes of olives produce between 200 and 300 litres of oil.
After last year's harvest, Mr Cremona pressed close to 200 tonnes of olives that were brought to him from landowners all over Malta - up from the average 120 tonnes of the last few years and more than 30 times what was pressed when he first embarked on this life-changing journey in 1998.
During the first years an average six tonnes were pressed a year. Mr Cremona is excited that the first 800 Maltese indigenous olive trees are now expected to begin to produce olives.
Mr Cremona, whose passion is shared by his wife Matty and 15-year-old daughter Lizzie, has channelled all his energy into the project, and has largely left urban life behind him.
Primo's ultimate aim is consistent production of a high quality, EU-certified extra virgin mono-cultivar olive oil. The certification process with the Malta Standards Authority is the next step in Mr Cremona's plans. The scientific process, which involves extensive analysis of the olive oil's quality, chemical properties and characterisation, is being carried out with the help of the Istituto Agronimco in Bari and the International Olive Oil Council in Zaragoza, Spain.
The indigenous olive tree is particularly hardy, and trees dating back 2,000 years have been identified in several parts in the north of the island. The trees are particularly resistant to insect devastation and to disease - a characteristic European Union agricultural experts found hard to believe until they travelled to Malta and dissected the fruit themselves. They eventually agreed with the information which had been published in 1915 by John Borg, founder of the Ghammieri government farm and Commissioner of Agriculture under British rule.
Mr Cremona says that the organisation that will produce and market the Primo extra virgin olive oil from the 'Bidni' variety growing all over Malta will be marketed as a health food targeting outlets that offer foods specially indicated to strengthen and improve the immune system.
He is optimistic that this oil will not only supply the Maltese and tourist market, but eventually find its way to the most renowned gourmet shops in Europe's major cities. "The market potential is enormous," he says.
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