Dates, Goats, and a Lesson in Humility 

After one week in this beautiful country, we’ve made our way from the coastal, economic capital of Casablanca, through the beautiful blue, mountain village of Chefchauoen, historical Fes and now, to the Sahara desert.

Along the way, we’ve see all imaginable types of landscape. The lush, rich farmland of the Rif Mountain foothills probably surprised us the most. Banana greenhouses and fields of vegetables and alfalfa, all being tended by hand near the coast gave way to a sprawling patchwork quilt of wheat, barley, fava beans, alfalfa and olive trees.

There are incentives to grow wheat here, and based on the amount of bread the Moroccans consume, we understand why they need so much. It was Cherise though, the self-proclaimed city girl with prairie roots, who noticed the lack of storage. She was right. Short of a couple elevators by Casablanca, we had seen nothing even resembling grain bins or elevators. 

Banana-greenhouses-in-Morocco
Banana trees growing under plastic cover.

    

It shouldn’t have surprised us that agriculture is still such an important part of the Moroccan economy – 40% are still employed in farming. With such favourable and varied climates, they can grow a full gamet of produce, field crops, and tree fruits. One of which Morocco is famous for and is a key export for the nation, is dates. 

We got a first hand education in date production yesterday in what will no doubt be the most memorable part of our trip.  

Date palm trees and farms in the Ziz Valley

Entering the Ziz Valley, it’s hard to believe much could grow here. The harsh hillsides of the Middle Atlas and High Atlas Mountains seem so barron, even sheep and goats find little to graze on here. This is where the nomadic Berber tribes call home, moving their livestock from hill  to hill.

  

  

This barron landscape gives way to a river valley and the famous Ziz River. At one point, the red gorge plunges downward and at the bottom, are hundreds of small-holder farmers  rotating field crops beneath the shade of their date palm trees. I learned there is no average farm size here.

“We don’t keep track of these things,” stated our guide, Tata, who grew up in this valley. He did mention though that they know exactly how many date trees there are. 

  

 Dates grow on a palm tree. We were lucky to have arrived during pollination season also. Male and female palms produce different flowers, and they must be manually pollinated. We watched in awe as a farmer, straddling the palm fronds 30 feet up in the air, sliced back some of the growth, then tied male flowers in amongst the female on the tree.

Date quality improves with age and often the highest quality, most sought after dates are from the oldest trees. A simple “tie test” with a blade of a frond can determine if a specific palm is of good quality for further propogation. All over we see tiny palm trees, the “babies” of the “mothers”.

Propagation is critical as it’s the one method available to try to keep ahead of the fungal disease which is threatening date production in the Middle East. The fungus can kill palms within weeks and spreads easily through spores. With no treatment for it, affected trees are burned. I wonder how long the new seedlings take to mature and if the spores live on in the soil. I wonder if biotechnology could not assist these farmers?

Dates trees are not the only crop grown in the valley. Beneathe the trees we walk among many different farmers’ fields of wheat, alfalfa, fava beans and even some corn. Along the river bank, bamboo grows providing an important building material for the community.

This community is blessed to be near the Ziz River dam, so their extensive irrigation ditches often have the water they need to move to their crops. I suspect others further downstream may not be as lucky; there are times on our drive when the the Ziz River seems but a thread within its banks.

These families grow everything they need for themselves, rotating crops every three months and topping up with a little fertilzer as needed. They admit their life is simple. It is so rich though. Rich with delicious food (which we were blessed to try), beauty and laughter. Cherise and I can’t help but admire how happy they are with what Westerners would consider as living with next to nothing. Material possessions do not make a life rich. This was proof.

  

  

I risk romanticizing this life, because I certainly think it is difficult, even with electricity and a fridge, if they wished to own one, and water in their backyard. The work I have seen in the fields this last week literally looks backbreaking; bent over vegetable rows weeding, cutting hay by hand and loading it on a donkey to lay out and dry, hoeing between freshly seeded wheat rows.

It does not surprise me to hear many young people do not want to stay on the farm and seek a life in the city, where work and money comes “easier”. I realize talking to Tata, our way of farming in Canada must seem in many ways closer to the mindset of these city dwellers than it is his family’s.

Isn’t it inevitable though as more people move to the city and leave the land, these farmers will need to produce more or Morocco will need to import food for their urban population? The government hopes not. One wonders if startup loans are enough though to keep young people interested in farming and what will become of Moroccan agriculture subsidies when liberalized trade with Europe takes effect in a few more years?

Today, we venture out into the desert. I hope to write more in the coming days but wanted to share this all with you as soon as I could. 

My favourite picture from yesterday: meeting a goat herder as we crossed the Ziz River bridge.  

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