“OR” is a new variety of tangerine that is small in size, sweet in taste, seedless and easy to peel. The new variety has become a hit among European consumers leading to high demand and high market prices. “OR” is not yet a household name in Israel as 93% of the crop is exported, mainly to Europe where this premium fruit has become most profitable.
While the new variety was well received quickly it did not appear overnight but took about 30 years to develop and was introduced in the nick of time to save the country’s citrus industry from extinction. This new tangerine breathed new life into the industry and its success and profits provided the resources need to enhance the long-term project for developing new citrus fruit varieties at the Volcani Institute.
The threat to the very existence of the citrus groves in Israeli as a viable agricultural industry was due to changes in the market. The Shamouti oranges which reigned supreme during the 1960s as its brand name, the famous “Jaffa” oranges were closely identified with Israel’s economic miracle. The Shamouti reached its peak during the 1970s with exports reaching a total of 600 thousands tons of these oranges before those exports slumped down through the years to the current mere 10,000 tons.
The decline in Shamouti exports may be attributed to several factors. First and foremost the European consumer became “spoilt” as the busier life style demanded fruit that was quick and easy to peel. Additional local difficulties included higher water prices and poor foreign currency exchange rates which damaged the industry, as well as lower labor costs among Israel’s competitors.
Researchers at the Volcani Institute almost gave up on their efforts to develop a citrus fruit to meet the new market demands but after several decades they eventually succeeded. The pilot plantations produced poor yields and were uprooted, and the farmers were hesitant when it came to taking further risks. What saved the day in the end was the “girdling” of the tree trunk. According to this method the bark is cut off around the tree trunk thereby leaving all the sugars in the upper part of the tree and so improving the tree’s fertility. The increased yields led to commercial plantings in 1996 by a few farmers followed by the planting of citrus groves on a larger scale from 2002 onwards.
An improved economic climate also contributed to this success story as the costs for water dropped significantly thanks to recycling and the increased value of the European currency. The income from the “OR” tangerines now stands at around 350 million NIS or 35% of the overall income for citrus fruit in Israel. The largest market for the fruit is in Europe with smaller quantities exported to North America, Japan, Korea and Australia.
The success of the “OR” tangerines did not go unnoticed by the Israeli farmers who began to plant trees of this variety on a grand scale so that today there are some 5,000 hectares of these citrus groves and more are planted every year.
The Israeli industry has learnt from previous errors when many of its new varieties were copied by others and the market inundated with fruit from Spain and North Africa. Dr. Nir Carmi from the Volcani Institute succeeded in registering a world-wide patent for the “OR” tangerines and is pleased to offer a franchise to countries in the southern hemisphere such as South Africa and Australia where the growing season is different.
The income obtained from these royalties is used to promote the Institute’s research.
Based on past experiences the citrus industry is aware of the fact that the most exciting new variety will at some point decline and so work is in progress at the Volcani Institute, Plants Production and Marketing Board and at the Ministry of Agriculture to find a suitable replacement when the time comes.
Among the factors, which might have a negative effect on the sales of the “OR” tangerines are a poor economic climate in Europe that would make it difficult for the consumers to pay high prices. Increasing competition from similar products is yet another factor and so new varieties are needed constantly. Dr. Carmi has gone on record as saying, “I am not worried, as there are new varieties already on the way. It is clear to us that ‘nothing lasts forever’.”
Not all the farmers are so confident and many are concerned about what might happen if the demand for the “OR” tangerines should fall suddenly. The economic reality for agriculture has changed over the years and while a century ago a farmer could make living from 1 hectare of land today even 10 hectares are barely enough.