- Food and Cooking
The Sowing of the Oil Palm
The Cultivation Of The Oil Palm
The oil palm tree is an elegant tree that belongs to the plant family called palmate or palm family. Tropical West Africa is the main centre of origin of this perennial tree plant. Still, there is distribution of the oil palm tree in the tropical zones of South America, Indonesia, Malaysia and many part of South-East Asia. The oil palm grows well between latitudes 13 degree North and 13 degree south of the equator. In West Africa, the cultivation of oil palm extends through the Southern latitude of Sierra Leone, Liberia, the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, Cameroon, Congo D.R, and Nigeria. The oil palm belt in Nigeria stretches from Calabar, along the Niger-Delta down to Badagry in Lagos state. The different varieties of the oil palm include the Dura, Pisifera, and Tenera.
The oil palm thrives in deep loamy soils, rich in organic matter and retains sufficient water to sustain growth. In addition, it is tolerant to both acid and neutral soils, which is one reason for it being widely cultivated in the eastern part of Nigeria where the soil is slightly acidic. Because the oil palm requires an average rainfall of at least 150 cm to 200 cm per annum, well distributed throughout the year, cultivation is mostly confined to the wetter parts of the rain forest regions. An average temperature of 25 to 28 degree centigrade is optimum for growth and the average sunshine hours should be up to 6 hours per day. Now, having gotten to know some scientific facts about the oil palm tree, let us look at the processes of its cultivation, starting from its seed.
The Germinator Room
The method of propagation is by seeds. This means that, just like most crop plants, the breeding of new oil palm trees occurs through the seed. However, under a normal condition, it usually takes time before the seeds of the oil palm would begin to exhibit the signs of germination. This period of seed inactivity is the dormancy period. Seeds usually pass through this dormancy period before entering into the stage of germination. However, the dormancy period is very much long in oil palm seed. Since the seeds are very slow to germinate, artificial methods involving the use of high temperature or heat to break the dormancy period and promote a faster germination.
These methods are termed the wet heat method and the dry heat methods:
Germination Promoted By Wet Heat
In the method, the oil palm seeds are soaked in water for 7 days. The farmer should ensure regular changing of the water during this period. The farmer then dries the oil palm seeds carefully in the shade for about 2 hours until all the surface water has evaporated. After drying, the farmer places the seeds in polythene bags and the tops fastened with rubber bands. A farmer can fill a polythene bag with as many as around 77 Dura seeds or about 1000 Tena seeds. He places the bags in boxes of convenient size. He then transfers the boxes to a germinator room that has a high and constant temperature of 39 degree centigrade. The farmer, or whoever who puts in charge, examines the seeds twice daily and waters them with a fine spray from a small hand mist sprayer to maintain the required moisture content. After 80 days, the farmer removes the boxes and bags from the germinator room and places them in cool conditions. Normally, a flush of germination begins a few days after cooling and if the water available during the period spent in the germinator has been adequate, germinating will be complete in 15 to 20 days. He discards seeds that could not germinate at this stage.
Germination Promoted by Dry Heat
Just like in the wet method, the seeds are soaked in water for seven days, with a daily change of water. However, unlike the wet method, the farmer dries the seeds in the shade for 24 hours by spreading them out in a single layer. After this, he places the seeds in polythene bags that he checks from time to time to ensure the bags are undamaged. Just like in the wet method, the farmer transfers the bags to a germinator room that has a constant temperature of 39 degree centigrade. The seeds chill out for some time in the germinator room. This length of time is 80 days. Now, after 80 days, he can remove the hot seeds from the germinator room and soak them in water for seven days. Within these seven days, he ensures that there is regular changing of water. After which, the seeds are dried slightly in the shade for about 2 hours. The farmer then places them in new polythene bags and transfers them to the cooling room. Of course, by the cooling room, we do not mean the germinator room. You can pick your kitchen as your cooling room as long as it has a normal room temperature that is well below 39 degree centigrade. At this point of the cycle, it is essential that the poly bags used for dry heating and for subsequent cooling should remain intact and the farmer examines their condition twice a week. Germination by the heat method ensures a germination efficiency of about 85% to 90 %.
It is very important that the farmer should know that he or she should not plant oil palm seeds on the field.
Nursery is a temporary site on or around the farm in which he grows the seeds of plants before he transfers to their permanent site of growth. This is to ensure delicate seeds are given time to adapt to the environment of the farm. Now, after the oil palm seeds have passed through glorious hell in the germinator room, we have the pre-nursery stage where the farmer makes available seed boxes he fills with topsoil, rich in humus. It is advisable that the he sows the oil palm seeds at a spacing of 7.0 cm by 7.0 cm. Under a suitable shade, watering of the seed boxes occurs in the morning and in the evening. The pre-nursery stage usually lasts for four to five months after which the farmer then transfers the seed boxes to the nursery. Thus, we can see that the seedlings take some time to grow in a cooling room before the farmer transfers them to the nursery. At the nursery stage, a level, well-drained, loamy soil is required for the nursery bed. He first plough and harrow the nursery bed. He does the planting in the nursery early April. He also does the watering, weeding and mulching. After a year, he removes the seedlings with a ball-of-earth method, transplants it in the most careful and professional of ways to the permanent site.
Farmers usually plant oil palm on flat or gently undulating land. Oil palm plants thrive well on acidic soil. Thus, it would be sound advice to engage the service of a professional to conduct some soil test on the land. This is to ascertain its level of acidity. After which, the farmer clears the land, plough the land, as well as perform the activities of harrowing with the right farm implements or farm machinery. A spacing of 9 metre by 9 metre in triangular form is required in a hole of 4.5 cm deep on the field. The farmer trims the roots to encourage the development of new ones. The early establishment of a cover crop is as an essential part of oil palm trees planting. In many parts of West Africa, farmers establish cover crop like Pueraria phaseoloides between the three rows without deliberate seeding, and patches of Centrosema pubescens, may occasionally arise in a similar manner. In Nigeria, the planting of cover crops may begin in March, before the rains are fully established.
Maturity takes place three to seven years after planting. The farmer harvests the matured branches when the fruits are red or dark-red in color.
The farmer can then process these oil palm fruits to different grades of palm oil that we use in the cooking of some of our food.