Avocados, mangoes, bananas, guavas and passion fruit… welcome to Sicily! At the foot of Etna, everything grows, now including exotic fruits, due to global warming.
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The setting is more akin to the tropics than to Europe: the fields of mango and avocado trees, separated by rows of palm trees, extend as far as the eye can see between the majestic silhouette of the volcano and the blue waters of the Mediterranean.
“Over the past ten years, a real sector has been born (…) and which gives us a lot of satisfaction, for example being able to work 10 or 11 months out of 12,” says Andrea Passanisi, president. of the Coldiretti farmers’ union in Catania, the second largest city in Sicily.
It was during a trip to Brazil in the 2000s that the idea came to this bustling 39-year-old Sicilian to grow exotic fruits at home in Sicily, thanks to the similarities between the two climates.
Freshly graduated in law, this native of Catania rolled up his sleeves and planted his first avocado trees upon his return from his trip.
Fertile terrain thanks to the richness of volcanic soils, hot and humid micro-climate, low temperature variations between night and day: the conditions are optimal.
«Made in Etna»
Today, the bet has been won, with no less than 43 farmers and hundreds of hectares dedicated to tropical fruits. A direct-to-consumer sales site (www.siciliaavocado.it) has also been created, and “Made in Etna” fruits are available throughout Italy, but also in Europe.
In this still very hot month of September, the mango harvest is in full swing. Then it will be the turn of avocados and guavas, including passion fruit and bananas.
Prosperity linked to the worrying rise in temperatures in Italy. The last four years have been the hottest on record in 200 years on the peninsula. And 2023 promises to be even more torrid, with an average temperature 0.67 degrees higher than the historical average, over the first seven months of the year, according to the National Research Council (CNR).
In her field of mango trees, Carla Cassaniti is busy picking her fruits.
Originally from Fiumefreddo di Sicilia, at the foot of Mount Etna, this lively agronomist worked in Milan in northern Italy. 10 years ago, she left everything to return to her native lands, in a landscape that looks more like Brazil or India than Europe. “Since these are fruits native to tropical areas, they need water at the beginning of cultivation, but then, when the trees have grown, they are resistant to drought,” she explains.
Orange vs mangue
Ten years later, no regrets for the young woman, whose mango trees are now robust and full of fruit. She chooses to see climate change “in Sicily as an opportunity, to give the possibility to new crops like mango, passion fruit, papaya, avocado, to find their place here”.
This brunette with a big smile, who also deals with organic certification in the Catania region, also sees favorably the impact of her new crops on the environment: “By consuming a local product, we have a footprint minor carbon, therefore less CO2, if we consider all the transport, the hours of travel that a banana would need for example to arrive from Brazil in the Italian supermarkets.
From an economic point of view, growing tropical fruits is not without risks.
Their price is higher than that of oranges or lemons, but the yield per hectare is lower. And Sicilian farmers know that the vagaries of the weather could push them to adapt once again.
“Now the cold no longer comes in December but in January or February. January and February for tropical plants is the period when flowering begins, the plant begins to wake up, and an excessive cold snap becomes a problem, we risk compromising production,” warns Andrea Passanisi.
Same thing for excessive heatstroke which exotic fruits hardly appreciate. In 2021, the mercury approached 49 degrees in Sicily, a heat record never recorded in Europe.
“Citrus fruits are much more resistant, both to heat and cold,” explains Andrea Passanisi.