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The testimony of Francesco Perri

Italy: The evolution of citrus growing in the Sibari Plain

Italy produces, on average, 400,000 tonnes of clementines. Around 20,000 hectares are dedicated to citrus growing in the Sibari Plain in Calabria, which constitutes 50% (200,000 tonnes) of production.

Up until 15 years ago, they only cultivated common clementines, which are very tasty, high quality seedless fruits with small-medium grades that are easy to peel and have a balanced sugar/acid content. Since the 1980s, this fruit has been the main asset for the economy of the Sibari Plains.

"We expected that things wouldn't always be so good as time went on," says agronomist Francesco Perri (in the photo below), one of the main citrus experts in Italy. "The main problem is that common clementines can be stored for approximately 45 days. The big harvesting period starts on 10th November and continues on until the end of the year."

Various experiments began 20 years ago coordinated by the Istituto Sperimentale per l'Agrumicoltura (CRA). "Experimental fields were set up to confront a number of varieties from various countries in the Mediterranean basin as well as some bud mutations which were identified in Italy. We were able to assess the different characteristics, harvesting times, productivity, susceptibilities and resistances."
"Because research periods are quite long, over ten years was needed to obtain reliable data. We understood which selections can adapt to the Italian climate and especially to that in Calabria (Sibari Plain, Lamentino and Gioia Tauro plain), Basilicata (Metapontino plain) and Puglia (plain between Massafra, Ginosa and Palagiano)."

Product and process innovation are the instruments required to carry out these improvements.

Product innovation
Various varieties of clementine, both early and late, were selected so we were able to extend production time from 45 days to 5 months (October to February).

Experiments are still going on and at the moment we are focusing our attention on some very early clementines (which would speed up harvesting by 10-15 days) which originated from Oronules, a variety very popular in Spain. Some pose a few agronomic problems, whereas others seem more promising. "We will see how the tests do, because we do not have a final objective, we just want to improve quality and production time," explains Perri.

Left: late plants; right: early plants.

An aspect which is often overlooked is the potential of the area. "In fact, the first thing we did with some companies was to locate the area that could best show off the qualities of the various cultivars. There are many types of soil and microclimates in the Sibari plain. For example, Hernandina is a late cultivar harvested during the second half of January that can be cold stored for over a month at 7-8°C with a humidity between 85 and 90% without fungicides or chemicals. This means the produce can be sold until the end of February."

The objective is to extend the sales calendar beyond February. For this purpose, an important project was initiated together with the CRA for the diffusion of a series of crossbreeds between oranges (mainly Tarocco) and clementines. As they are triploids, these hybrids do not produce pollen and therefore can be cultivated next to clementines without any problems.

"Grades are between those of clementines and Tarocco oranges. They are easy to peel, seedless and the taste is a mixture of the two 'parents'. Some of these crossbreeds are even pigmented, which makes them unique. One in particular, which ripens between February and March, looks lovely because both its peel and flesh are pigmented. It is called Mandared and it will be produced as of this year."

Ripening calendar of triploids, between October and March.

Process innovation
Almost all of the production on the Sibari plain is cultivated with integrated control methods, and part is organic. Integrated control means a rational use of fertilisers and products to protect fruit from parasites.

"We have recently come back from Spain, where we visited some leading producers. I have been liaising with some researchers and technicians over there and every time I visit, I am more convinced of the fact that we have different agricultures and ways to manage the citrus fruit system." 

"Spaniards use a lot of chemicals - fertilisers, pesticides and weed control. Almost exclusively, we manage weeds almost mechanically." The fact that Spaniards use a lot of chemicals causes a series of environmental problems. Groundwater is often contaminated by nitrates and there are a lot of residues.

Left: Spanish fruit; right: Italian fruit.

According to Perri, training is different between Italians and Spaniards, therefore, so is the mentality. Italian technicians care a lot about the environment and the health of operators and consumers, therefore "our cultivation techniques are more respectful of the environment." The EU recognises that Italian technicians and growers are those that research and use sustainable methods the most.

"Another fundamental aspect that distinguishes us from Spain is grades. Clementines are the tastiest amongst citrus, but have small-medium grades, even though there are some cultivars that produce larger ones. In the Iberian Peninsula, the main cultivar is called Clemenules (50%) and it produces large grades. It was also tested in Italy, but grades were far too big, whereas is Spain the outcome is perfect. This does not mean that they are better than us, but rather that over there selections that produce bigger grades do well. On the contrary, if our common clementines were cultivated over there, they would be way too small."

"We must underline how the quality of a fruit - i.e. taste and organoleptic qualities - do not depend on grade. This concept must be made known by operators and packagers. We must explain to consumers that quality does not depend on grade."

According to the expert, another fundamental point is that around 70% of fruit in Italy goes through retail, which is now the main commercial channel. "Often purchase managers do not know the different territories and their production. Actually, many do not even know that the citrus fruit sector is currently being revamped in Italy, as they tend to think only Spain does this. It must be said though that Spain produces more than us and is more dynamic."

The problem is that, those companies that believe in innovations are very few. Still, it means that there are companies that are at the same levels as the leaders of the sector. On the other hand, some POs are not innovated and produce mainly common clementines and Navelina oranges, so their future is at risk.

Francesco Perri
Cell.: (+39) 338 4164800

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