Entrepreneur farmers begin growing the “salt of the future” in Portimão
The Algarve is well-known for its history of salt production. Salt was once Portugal’s white gold and essential to many economic treaties. However in modern times salt-making is not as lucrative as it once was, and the vast majority of us use salt from “salt mines” or “non-solar evaporation vats”. Consequently many of Portugal’s salterns have fallen into decline and some have even been re-opened to the Atlantic. However you can still find commercially active salterns in the Algarve – in Olhão, Castro Marim and Tavira.
About two years ago, two young entrepreneurs, Ricardo Coelho and Hugo Mariano, advanced with a Salicornia plantation in the Figueira area, in the municipality of Portimão. The initial project was challenging but today the production is already around at 15 tons per year.
Salicornia is a plant that, among other properties, can replace salt, with notable health benefits, and that develops primarily near salterns.
Therefore, trying to produce it inside, having to add salt to the irrigation water and, before that, sealing the soil to avoid contamination, is not a simple or easy process.
But Ricardo Coelho, who had thoroughly studied salt and the flora around salterns believed it was possible.
Both he and Hugo Mariano bet on lamps with the light characteristics specifically required by the plant, so that its development was permanently ongoing.
“Year Zero in 2018 was very difficult,” Ricardo Coelho said. “We had a lot of theory, but we needed to learn a lot of practical things. Two of the eight growth tunnels came down in a storm, but we have learned from and corrected the situation. We have cultivated little, but regularly ”.
This year, everything is going as expected. They had their first harvest in mid-April and still haven’t stopped. “Harvesting is done weekly, always on the same day, for regular and large customers. Sometimes we harvest twice a week so the product customers receive is fresh on the shelves. For sporadic customers, we do it on the day of delivery. 80 to 90 per cent of our annual production, which will be around 15 tonnes, is mainly exported to the Netherlands, because this country, the largest European importer, operates as a major retailer of Salicornia. Our product is also consumed in Germany, Belgium, Poland and the Czech Republic,” the producers revealed.
There are at least four producers of Salicornia in Portugal, it is still rarely consumed by locals, due to the lack of knowledge of the properties and a very strong cultural tie to the regular Mediterranean diet, not wanting to add any new product.
It will undoubtedly take time to get to people’s tables, but the two entrepreneurs are working hard to reverse this. In addition to fresh Salicornia, they are also betting on dehydrated, lyophilized and crushed pickles, so consumers have more choice and so that they can reach different market niches.
“It is natural to buy dehydrated herbs. If we can add to a specific flavour a degree of salinity that will salt the food, then we will choose one with greater diversity and nutritional quality,” says Ricardo Coelho.
Coelho and Mariano are also already producing a separate range of fresh produce, which includes herbs such as parsley, coriander, thyme, chives, rosemary and others through organic farming. The duo ensures that “they have already achieved the quality of excellence” and have been forced to diversify, “because it is difficult to give only one product to a retailer for the quantity and logistics involved”.