Oil Palm Day! Today we visited Palma Tica and saw their nursery and their mature plantation. There are 4,337 hectares of oil palm within the nursery and there are 84,000 plants. There is a total of 45,000 hectares of oil palm on the farm. All of the varieties that are grown in the nursery are chosen to do well in hot and dry climates. There are both hybrids and clones within the nursery. In the nursery the root length, root growth and oil palm leaf size is measured to make sure that the variety is suitable to the climate. The leaf width is directly proportional to the amount of oil produced by the tree. The nursery is irrigated because the biggest and pretty much only stress for oil palm is water stress. They water the plants constantly sprinklers at night to reduce the amount lost to evaporation and because since 2013 there has been a three degree increase but you do not see the stress until two years later.
The nursery also sells plants to companies that are not apart of Palma Tica but that company needs to sell the fruit back to Palma Tica. Within doing this other companies also need to follow the same certifications as Palma Tica and so there is training set up for those companies as well. Oil palms are susceptible to anthracnose, alternaria and caterpillars. Within the nursery there are pheromone traps set up to catch the caterpillars. There are no resistant varieties to the fungus so preventing them is the key. The plan for the oil palm plantation is to introduce leguminous plants as cover crops because the base of the trees is sandy.
For the dwarf varieties the first five years of production is lower than with the normal varieties. However the advantage of the dwarf varieties is that they grow slower than the normal varieties and so they take an extra 10 years to reach full height. The fruit is mature 18 months after transplanting. Oil palm is planted at a density of 160 plants per hectare however the variety determines the spacing of the plants. The dwarf varieties usually last around 40 years and the normal varieties last around 30 years. The trees usually reach top maturity 10 – 12 years and maintain that normal yield for around 38 years. Each tree also usually produces a bundle every 8 – 10 days in about 75% of the trees. In one year from roughly 10,980 plants you will get about 2190 tonnes of fruit. You get approximately 28 tonnes per hectare of fruit.
Oil Palm produces 24 tonnes per hectare and they get $650 per tonne for oil. The employees work 6 ½ hours a day but get paid for 8, they get paid $20 per day. Each bundle of oil palm weighs 18.5 kg. In terms of harvesting oil palm, Palma Tica uses buffalo and oxen because during the wet season tractors cannot navigate through the soil. The animals are only allowed to carry so much weight, which is around 700 kg, but it depends on the weight of the animal. Usually the animals can carry around 38 bundles per cart. Each person is also assigned to three animals and they rotate through the animals so as not to injure or stress the animals. During harvest the leaves off the palm tree have to be removed in order to gain access to the fruit. These leaves are placed in between the rows of the palm trees and left to decompose at their own rate. Once a tree is too tall to be harvested it is injected with a herbicide and left to decompose.
The employees are paid minimum wage and then are paid a premium for the number of bundles that they collect. All workers are above the age of 18 and about 40% of the works are from Nicaragua and are provided houses and utilities. All employees are trained in every job so that if they are needed to work somewhere else within the operation.
One main characteristic that was talked about throughout our visit with Palma Tica was that they were trying to reduce the amount of pesticides that they used and the way they made it sound was that they were combining both the conventional way and the organic way of producing oil palm. Palma Tica currently has 5 hectares planted into the dwarf variety and the biggest challenge that they are facing is that they do not have enough data. In all of their fields, soil and leaf analysis are done to make sure that the plants are doing as well as the soil is maintained. The main differences between the dwarf and normal varieties is that the bundles in the normal variety are larger, the nutrition for the oil palm is in the trunk and so with the dwarf variety there is less trunk which means less nutrition available. There is more manual labour in dwarf varieties compared to normal varieties but along with the increase in labour there is also an increase in profit.
My three learning points for the day were that the dwarf varieties of oil palm take an extra 10 years to grow and become too tall for harvest but they still require higher labour costs. My second learning point is that using buffalo and oxen instead of tractors is not only better for the environment but is also better for the plantation during the rainy season as a tractor would not be able to get through the plantation. My third learning point for the day was that this company puts a high priority on social responsibility and they invest money into their community and aid in education of surrounding farmers.