Portugal Part 2: The Harvest

After a multitude of Mosquito bites and a few hours sleep in the car we headed over to meet Armnio Albino who would be our tour guide. Having worked at Amorim for over 20 years there isn’t a thing that he doesn’t know about cork. As designers we feel there is no better way to get an understanding of a process than actually going and seeing it and being around the people who know it best. We will always take the time and make the effort to do this, the insights we gain into how to push materials and processes and use them to their full capability are invaluable.

We followed Armnio in our rented Mitsubishi Colt about 20 kilometres into the Portuguese countryside. Nerves jangled as we whipped along dusty, rock strewn tracks and realised that this was very definitely tractor country. Car chassis in tact we parked up at what Armnio deemed the right spot where we met the local farm manager. The sound of the harvest greeted us before we actually saw it. In the distance Machadas hacking, bark peeling and farmers shouting to one another. After a short hike through the forest we reached the crop being harvested.

It takes about 2 years to train as a cork extractor and within moments it was clear why. This is a highly skilled job, working in pairs the farmers remove cork from each tree in about 5 to 10 minutes. Making precise incisions the goal is to remove the bark in long sections without damaging the trunk underneath. A tree can only be stripped once it is around 30 years old. After its first harvesting the process can only be repeated every 9 years, to ensure the tree recovers. The more a tree is harvested, the better the quality of cork it produces. It is paramount that quality of cork must is preserved as this effects its value, this is why it is so important that the tree isn’t damaged. Once a tree has been fully stripped the farmers move on. They are replaced by women who follow their progress, either collecting the bark or painting a number onto the trunk. The collected bark is loaded onto a trailer to be transported back to the main facility. The numbers represent the year a tree was stripped, allowing the farmers to know when it can next be harvested.

After a few hours of taking photographs, shooting films and generally having fun trying to overcome language barriers we had to head off. We returned to the cork processing facility with Armnio, which is where I’ll pick up from tomorrow.