Thistle, the new resource for the Sardinian economy
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Thistle, the new resource for the Sardinian economy

Taking stock in Porto Torres after a year of cultivation: significant income potential for farmers and opportunities to develop an innovative agricultural production chain

Porto Torres (Sassari), 18 March 2013 – Thistle is breathing new life into Sardinia´s agricultural and industrial production chain, through an innovative business model that responds at once to the industrial requirements of Matŕca – a joint venture between Eni Versalis and Novamont – and to those of the agricultural businesses of northern Sardinia. The model serves as a template for modern agro-industrial integration geared towards the establishment of a production chain that is very much rooted in the local area and that has only a very low level of environmental impact. These matters were the focus of the second technical/informative meeting on the thistle crop, which was staged here today in Porto Torres and which saw the input of numerous high-profile representatives of Sardinia´s farming and research communities and its local institutions, including the Mayor of Porto Torres, Beniamino Scarpa, and the Principal of the University of Sassari, Prof. Attilio Mastino, whose presence attests to the partnership between Matŕca and the Departments of Chemistry and Agriculture.

Thistle – Cynara cardunculus L. var. Altilis (cultivated thistle) and var. Sylvestris (wild thistle) – is a perennial herbaceous species that originates from the Mediterranean basin and is perfectly suited to warm, dry climates. It grows during autumn and winter, producing high levels of biomass even in the absence of irrigation (15-20 tonnes/hectare) and of oil, which are the raw materials for the ´third-generation biorefinery´ that is being created at the Matŕca plant in Porto Torres and that will produce chemical and bioplastic intermediates.

The positive results obtained and presented during the meeting highlighted the income opportunities for the farming industry afforded by the project, which also eliminates the risk of certain areas being abandoned, thanks to the production chains associated with the biorefineries integrated into the local area, in line with the commitment to respect local biodiversity.

´Thistle is not just about biomass and oil,´ explains Mauro Marchetti of the Italian National Research Council (CNR) in Sassari. ´It is also about substances that have high levels of added value: protein-rich flour and nectar´. In this way, the thistle production chain intersects with two other production chains: those for cow´s/goat´s milk and for honey. The former could benefit from the protein-rich flour (a by-product of the extraction of the thistle-seed oil) produced in Sardinia, which is both OGM-free and suitable for use as animal feed; whereas the latter could benefit from the nectar harvested by the bees for the production of high-quality honey.

During the course of today´s meeting, Luigi Pari from CRA ING described the operations for the harvesting of thistle, as well as the commitment to produce a prototype with a different system for the collection of the stems and with a considerably lower mass than the machinery currently in use, with a view to boosting operating capacity and versatility. Mr Pari also made clear that the experimentation is helping the development of a system for the differentiated collection of thistledown.

For his part, moderator Michele Falce – co-ordinator of the Matŕca agricultural production chain – underlined the importance of mechanical harvesting, which is an operation that accounts for around 60% of the cost of production of thistle and that has a significant impact on the product yield and quality.

Massimo Fagnano of Federico II University illustrated the current experiments being carried out in the Campania region on thistle and alternative oleaginous crops, which could be developed in rotation with biomass crops: high-oleic rapeseed and sunflowers for autumn sowing. The results presented demonstrate that thistle is an ideal crop: on fertile soil, by the second year of the cycle it doubles its productivity, generating in excess of 29 tonnes/hectare of biomass with 2.4 tonnes/hectare of seeds.

´The experiments in Sardinia, which began in autumn 2011 with the sowing of around 15 hectares of thistle in outlying parts of the Nurra area and in Ottana, continued with the sowing in 2012 of an additional 180 hectares on soils that had not been cultivated for years,´ explains Salvatore Raccuia of the National Research Council (CNR) in Catania. ´On these soils, wheat is no longer remunerative: with a production cost of €650–700/hectare, the income – with 2 tonnes/hectare of wheat produced – is around €600/hectare (Coldiretti data 2010)´. The productivity of thistle in the first year of cultivation in Sardinian fields was around 11 tonnes/hectare of biomass and 0.76 tonnes/hectare of seed.

The estimate from the second year onwards is around 17 tonnes/hectare of biomass and 1.9 tonnes/hectare of seed. The margin for the farmer is particularly attractive: €280–380/hectare, net of Community premiums.

´The efficient use of resources,´ concludes Marco Versari, a member of the Matŕca board, ´does not represent simply a strategic requirement for the planet in environmental terms, but also an enormous opportunity for the relaunching of the Sardinian economy, based on new technologies that are positively integrated into the various local areas. This requires the adoption of a systematic, circular model of development to address the specific problems of environmental sustainability, through ongoing dialogue and increasingly close partnerships with farmers, business owners and researchers in Sardinia´.

News and press releases | Mon, 18 March 2013

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