The Secret is in the Bark

By Jason Burke, LSU AgLeadership Class XV member

The Mediterranean region of Europe is well known for its fine cuisine, wineries, medieval castles, and pleasant climate. However, the southwest region of the Iberian Peninsula of Europe (including Spain and Portugal) has a little-known secret hidden beneath its bark—tree bark that is.

When one thinks of the many products that are derived from trees in the agriculture industry, most people think of various paper products, lumber, and furniture. Portugal has a unique raw material wood product hidden in its tree bark that cannot be made anywhere else in the world. In fact, according to Amorim (the largest producer and supplier of this raw material worldwide) this wood product is so perfect that no other industrial or technological process has been able to replicate it. Of course, I am talking about cork!

Today we left behind the agriculture fields of southern Spain and traveled to the small country of Portugal to learn about cork production. The first stop began with a short, rainy hike from the bus into the “montado” or oak savannah ecosystem. Montado is the Portuguese term for a generally poor production area with 3 main uses: forestry, agriculture, and grazing (the equivalent American term is agro-forestry). Cork is the byproduct of bark stripped from “cork oak trees” (Quercus Suber) that grow naturally on these sites. The stripping of the bark is done by specialized labor professionals that can complete this process without killing the tree. 

The cork oaks reach the age for their first bark stripping around the age of 25, and then every 9 year interval after that they are stripped again. The trees can live up to 200 years and produce 18-20 bark strippings in their life span. After each bark cutting, a number is painted on the trunk of the tree to give the determination of when the next bark stripping will come. Cork oak bark labor is the most important job in Portugal and bark harvesters are some of the highest-paid agriculture workers in the world. They are highly trained and experienced, insured from injury, and can earn on average 110 Euros per day (minimum wage is 600 Euros/month for less skilled labor).

We learned that all of the cork oak forests in the region are managed in a sustainable manner and regulated by the agriculture ministry of Portugal. A few examples of the sustainability practices include: No trees are killed while retrieving the bark, chemicals are restricted from use in the forests which can adversely effect cork quality, landowners are required to have forest management plans, and permission is needed from the agriculture ministry to cut down any dying or dead cork oaks in their forest. These are tree-mendous (no pun intended) commitments from the cork industry and their pledge to environmental sustainability. 

The next stop of the day was at the Amorim cork production facility where the stripped bark is unloaded from trucks for processing. The Amorim facility in Portugal produces approximately 35% of the worlds cork. To put that into perspective, one in every three cork bottle stoppers are produced there, of which the United States is the largest buyer of their corks and cork products. At the facility, we were able to see the process of steaming/drying the bark, the sorting of the bark by quality, and the cork cutting processes. Amorim is also highly invested in research relating to cork oak trees and cork production relating to diseases, insects, and genetics which furthers their sustainability pledge.

With the recent environmental push in the EU, and the wide variety of current/new uses for cork, this raw wood product should remain an environmentally-friendly favorite for most manufacturers and producers in the European agriculture industry.