Seeing a bunch of goats standing in a tree and munching away is hard enough to believe. It’s even harder to believe what they’re producing, how, and how much it sells for.
But goats in trees are what travellers encounter on the highway that runs from Marrakech to Essaouira on the Atlantic coast of Morocco. During a visit last April, our driver stopped to allow my wife Bev and I to take a picture as the goats munched away in the trees.
They’re eating the nuts from the argan tree (Argania spinosa). The trees are prickly but that doesn’t bother the goats. They are only attracted to the husk that tightly surrounds the nuts. The goats chew off the husks and ingest the hard nut, which passes through their digestive system. The argan nuts are then carefully extracted from the dung. They are washed and transported to a women’s co-operative, which takes over processing of the nuts into an oil, which is being sold as a cosmetic for more than $30 per ounce in North America.
Local Berber women crush the nuts with stones. The kernels or pits are dropped into a “quern,” which is a mill made of two stone wheels. The top stone has a handle and when it’s turned, the pits or kernels are crushed which creates a paste while some of the oil is extracted.
Although the women are adept at turning the wheel, tourists start to feel it in their arms after a few revolutions. It’s not easy work.
The paste is squeezed, most often by hand, to extract the rest of the oil. The remaining paste is used for animal feed or made into soap. The shells are often ground for use in pottery or as a skin exfoliant.
It takes approximately 15 hours of labour and 30 kilograms of kernels to make one litre of oil. A single tree in a good year can produce 150 kg or enough for five litres of oil. The oil is rich in essential fatty acids, and it is more resistant to oxidation than olive oil.
There are two types of argan oil — one is used in cosmetics and the second for cooking.
Cosmetic oil is traditionally used on hair, to treat sunburns and to help relieve eczema. Deep in the heart of the medina (market) in Marrakech, a shop owner named Ahmed showed us freshly crushed oil in two different jars. Opening the first jar, he said, “This oil has been filtered only one time and has a nutty scent. This second one has been filtered at least two times,” he said. “It has very little smell and is much clearer than the oil that was filtered only once.”
Ahmed recommended that single filtered oil be used for dry skin and the double-filtered oil for its anti-aging properties.
The cooking oil is from kernels that have been lightly toasted. It is golden brown in colour and has a nutty flavour. It is used on salads, on porridge, for dipping bread, on couscous and even on desserts. Argan oil isn’t used for frying because it’s not very heat stable.
There is a growing export market for argan oil and it’s shipped around the world including to Canada. In order to meet the increasing demand, newer technology had to be adopted to speed production. When the ripe nuts drop from the trees, women gather the nuts, which are dried in the sun and husks are removed.
Although old-style oil production still takes place at the co-operatives run by women, others have been able to purchase modern presses to squeeze the oil from the kernel. This cold-press method speeds the extraction and greatly reduces the workload from the old grinding methods.
Oil from the cold-press operation has a lower water content, which extends the shelf life, which is important for the growing export business.
There is a danger that demand might outstrip the country’s ability to produce the oil for export and still maintain enough supply for domestic use. Argan trees take up to 50 years to reach maturity and they are constantly being cut down for firewood, for timber, for cultivation and grazing by goats. Because argan forests have been reduced by a half in the last 100 years, the region has been designated a UNESCO reserve. Argan trees are also found in the western Mediterranean area of Algeria. And more recently, Israel and The United Arab Emirates are attempting to grow hybrid argan trees but as they take so long to establish, results of their efforts are not yet known.
Argan oil has such a good reputation that many companies advertise it as the main ingredient in their products. Words like “Moroccan oil,” are used to help sell skin creams and hair-care products. But it’s necessary to read the labels — many products contain some argan oil but it might be listed as the fourth or fifth ingredient, and its percentage is not listed on the product’s container. Other ingredients like coconut oil, sunflower oil and even canola oil are mixed with argan oil and are listed on the container. Pure argan oil can be purchased but it’s necessary to read the labels carefully. And, pure argan oil costs more. Some companies sell the pure product direct, so if you’re interested, check the Internet.
Goats in trees make for a good story and it’s fun, but remember, it isn’t the whole story.
Larry Gompf is a retired agronomist and a former writer for Grainews