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Europe Travel: A Visit to a Cork Farm in Redondo (Alentejo Region), Portugal

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In the Alentejo region of Portugal, spend an afternoon on a cork farm.


Logistics

  • Herdade da Maroteira Cork Farm in Redondo (Alentejo region), Portugal.
  • The estate offers three tours: Cork Trekking, Cork Jeep Tours and a Historical Village Tour.
  • We participated in the cork trekking tour.
  • Check the website for seasonal availability.
  • Herdade da Maroteira is 22mi (35km) northeast of Evora, Portugal
  • Private car transport is the best way to get there. Public transport options may not be available.

Map of Herdade da Maroteira

History of Herdade da Maroteira

This Portuguese “herdade“, or large farm, brings together family, agriculture, and industry.

Herdade da Maroteira has belonged to the same Anglo-Portuguese family for five generations. The farm began in the 1870s when the Englishman, Robert Reynolds, purchased a plot of cork oak forest with the intent to supply cork to the burgeoning port wine industry in the northern part of Portugal (Porto).

In the following 150 years, the farm has expanded its offerings to sell livestock, olives, and Syrah wine undert the label Cem Reis. It also offers tours to teach tourists about cork production and global cork consumption.

An afternoon at Herdade da Maroteira

We participated in the farm’s Alentejo countryside cork trek.

This tour presented the opportunity to learn about the farm, general information about cork production, and an insider’s take on how cork farms across Portugal are approaching an evolving market (demand for cork, labor shortages, and competition from new types of suppliers).

Arrive by private car to the farm

We drove from the south of Portugal to Herdade da Maroteira by way of the Alentejo countryside. After exiting the highway, we followed signs for Herdade da Maroteira. We turned off onto long loose gravel driveway, filled with large jagged rocks and potholes that threatened to pop our tires.

Once we arrived to Herdade da Maroteira’s main building, we met the team and began our walk through the cork oak forests.

About a half mile (800 meters) into the walk, we stopped to learn about the farm’s history, cork production in Portugal and how cork is used across the world today.

Cork production is a major industry in Portugal

Cork oak trees account for 9% of the Portugal’s total land mass and makes up 28% of the country’s total forest area.

Portugal produces about 50% of the world output of commercial cork, and its exports over recent years have accounted for around 70 percent of world trade. In 2016, the cork industry made 937.5 million euros ($1.04 billion USD) selling to 133 different countries.

Citation: The Cork Industry in Portugal By J. L. Calheiros E Meneses, President, Junta Nacional Da Cortia, Portugal

How is cork harvested?

Cork comes from cork oak trees. Cork is a natural material that is lightweight, compressible, elastic and flexible.

We recommend visiting this blog’s picture walkthrough of the cork harvesting process to learn more.

Cork farming in Portugal is highly regulated and requires patience

Portugal has a number of governing laws and boards filled with industry experts that set standards around best practices for cork farming.

Portuguese law prohibits stripping a cork oak tree more than once every nine years in order to protect the species. Every tree on a farm must be accounted for and marked with its age.

A tree must reach 25 years of age to be ready to be stripped of its cork. The first stripping of the virgin tree produces cork that is too inconsistent to be used as a bottle stopper. A tree’s second harvest usually produces more regular cork but it is still not up to production quality. It is on the third stripping, (25 years + 9 years + 9 years + 9 years) some 61 years after first planing, that a cork tree becomes commercially viable.

Cork oak trees typically live up to 200 years, which means about 16 total harvests.

Cork is still measured and priced using old Portuguese and Spanish systems of measurement derived from the Moorish period in Spain

Unprocessed cork is measured in arroba (about 15 kg, 31 pounds). Extraction costs are about €4 per @ (arroba uses @ as its sign of measurement).

The cost of cork fell from €44,80 per arroba piled cork in 2003 to €26,34 in 2013.

Cork farming is a highly specialized, prestigious job in Portugal

To become a cork stripper (un tirador), one must go through four years of job training prior to actually harvesting the cork. Because of the specialized nature of this job, and not enough personnel to fill these jobs, the cost of labor has gone up.

Farms across Portugal are now facing difficulty in paying wages to these highly specialized farm hands, at rates between 80-120 Euro ($85-$128 USD) per day (one of the highest rates in agriculture).

The cork industry is expanding into new markets

With the wine industry introducing synthetic corks and screw-top lids, the cork industry as a whole is facing a new vector of competition.

Because of this, cork farms are finding inventive ways to market their product, including being an ecologically-friendly alternative to plastics.

One such example is using cork as a lunchbox replacement. The material is non-porous (e.g. does not leak) which makes it a viable alternative to throwaway plastic packaging ubiquitous in school lunches.

Tour offerings may be different during during periods of the year

From May-June, cork oaks are manually stripped, wine is harvested, sheep are sheared, and olives are picked.

During the autumn and winter months, black pigs from Spain (from which the bellota hams are made) roam freely on the farm, feeding on the fallen acorn. At the end of season, the farm delivers the pigs back to their owners and receives a commission based off how much weight the pigs gained.


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