[Editor’s note: Alland & Robert invited Dairy Foods Ingredients Editor Kimberly J. Decker to visit its acacia gum supplier in Senegal. In Part One, Kim described her 24-hour journey from San Francisco to Dakar, Senegal, and then on to the town of Thies, where she visited Ferlo Gomme, Alland & Robert’s sole supplier of acacia gum in Senegal. Then she visited Asilya Gum, a grower of acacia trees. Her story continues.]
That Asilya Gum even cultivates acacia on so large a scale is a minor marvel, as acacia trees have historically resisted attempts at agriculture. Not unlike finicky wine grapes, they languish if planted too close, or if denied just the right levels of water, nutrients, sunlight and other growth factors.
Alas, both Ibrahim Ka, the general manager of Ferlo Gomme, and Frédéric Alland, the CEO of Alland & Rebort, confirmed that climate change is already introducing novel challenges to acacia farming in the form of unpredictable weather extremes and hardy new pests. Nevertheless, the Asilya crew soldiers on, proud of the fact that they’re the first growers in West Africa to farm acacia gum successfully.
After a dinner of chicken and goat, we resume the tour
We visited one such farm on our second full day in country. After a night in the town of Dahra—and a dinner of chicken tagine and stewed goat at the home of Anouar, Aslilya’s Moroccan orchard manager—we awoke the next morning to the sound of three separate muezzins calling us to prayer (or, more accurately in our case, to breakfast).
That snapped us out of our slumber and into the team van en route to the farm’s “main house.” Once there, we boarded a convoy of trucks and off-roaded it to the orchards themselves.
On the way, I learned that acacia is one of the strongest trees in the Sahel, its roots reaching as far as 30 feet down, where they hold onto soil and stave off desertification. On average, the Acacia senegal trees that Asilya grows can produce 250 grams (a little more than one-half pound) of gum per year. The trees aren’t generally tapped until they’re six years old, but after that, they can produce for 20 more years, if tended properly.
And careful tending is critical, both to the trees’ health and to the quality of the gum they yield. So how do Asilya’s workers harvest with care? In short, they make a superficial “scrape” along the trees’ trunks and branches, which prompts the trees’ defense systems to exude the gum just as our own bodies would send immune chemicals to the site of a new wound.
Gemlike gums are sorted in the warehouse
Over time, this exudate collects and hardens into the translucent, gemlike nodules that we saw spread across Ferlo’s sorting-warehouse floor. And when those nodules get to just the right size and hardness on the tree, harvesters carefully excise them, making sure not to cut too deeply and damage the trunks. The process neither harms nor weakens the acacias any more than the tapping of maples for syrup, Frédéric assured us. And given that the orchards are the foundation of the community’s livelihood, all the workers involved have a stake in keeping them in prime producing order.
Next week: I learn the similarities between growing acacia trees and wine grapes; Alland & Robert tells me it can trace acacia gum to specific plots; and I conclude that the more we learn about acacia gum, the more we realize how much more there is to learn.