What Makes The Best Quality Raw Leaf Yerba Mate? July 10 2016, 0 Comments

5am, dark and 2 degrees Celsius - Clovis (municipal secretariat of agriculture), Fabio (vice major) and I were in the old Passat heading out of the wonderful district of Ilopolis bound for Machadinho ( pronounced "ma-sha-dji-niho"), a small town 250km to the north. They had been invited to attend a presentation of the most expensive yerba mate trees on the market, the seeds of which go for around US$ 1000 per kilogram when the industry average is only US$ 100 per kg! It's a figure enough to blow a yerba mate farmer out of his boots, and these cowboys never remove their boots...

yerba mate farmers in machadinho
me (jovi) second from left with yerba mate farmers paying attention to a talk by agriculture expert

Once upon a time a yerba mate farmer noticed that a certain cluster of trees on his farm produced more leaves than the others in a given amount of time. To make a long story short, various specialists got on board to study these specimens, they isolated their unique characteristics and registered one of the first of hundreds of potential sub-species of the yerba mate tree (Ilex Paraguariensis) and called it Cambona 4.

We now know that Ilex Paraguariensis is merely an umbrella name for all the sub-species of the tree which cannot be visibly distinguished, but can be differentiated in  its leaf yield and taste - super important stuff for the hard working men and women of the world of yerba mate production.

yerba mate plantations in machadinho

Yerba mate farmers inspecting plantations of the Cambona 4 variety

The part that really interested me was this - starting in 2002 they started to test which combination of natural elements maximised the productivity of the trees whilst maintaining the quality of the final product. They now have their own commercial brand also called Cambona 4, the only yerba known to be from a truly homogeneous source.
 
Even-though I probably wouldn't pay this off-the-wall price for their product, I did learn a lot about the technicalities of yerba mate cultivation, thanks to the years of hard work this group of professionals have put into studying the tree...

yerba mate leaves of cambona 4

Yerba mate branch with leaves of Cambona 4 variety

  • Shade grown is best: The yerba mate tree occurs naturally in the shade of the jungle canopy. This environment yields high nutrient content in the leaves, but few leaves are produced and they grow very slowly.

 

  • Direct sunlight gives higher yield: 95% of the productivity of the tree depends on the quality of photosynthesis and transpiration ( upward movement of water from roots to leaves). Direct sunlight yields more leaves but sacrifices quality (nutrient content). The ideal balance between productivity and quality is achieved by providing the yerba mate tree with partial shade... but not just any shade.
 
  • Indigenous shade providing trees are best: Many farmers plant non-indigenous eucalyptus or pine trees to provide shade because they are cheap, grow easily and quickly, however both give off a strong aroma which the yerba mate leaves absorb. Also, they shed a lot of leaves which end up getting mixed into the yerba mate harvest. The best shade providing trees are the native trees, they said.

I think these guys went through a lot of effort to come to the conclusion that the best way to grow yerba mate is to leave it to nature. The most positive result of the research for me is the marketing potential - they can use the research to convince the masses that the seemingly simple concept of "let nature take its course" is both manageable and profitable.