A Lean Olive Harvest (Extract)

Olive growing is a key Palestinian industry but also a precarious one

18olive224 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Extract from article in Issue 18, December 22, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. High up in the hills of Al-Sawahre, overlooking the biblical Bethany to the south, just a few miles east of the city of Jerusalem, the air is suddenly fresher, life a bit slower, and traffic almost non-existent. Alia Zkerat, 43, mother of five and a former seamstress, lives here with her family on a deserted hill, with only a mosque nearby. She wears the traditional veil and dress, her face is tanned and beginning to wrinkle. "We have over 90 olive trees," says Zkerat, pointing to a wide stretch of land below her house. "But only 20 of our trees bear olives," she adds, suddenly looking away. "The other 70 have not been planted in good soil." She continues, "If we were to buy good soil and use it for the other 70 trees, my family and my three brother-in laws' families would be able to live off them. But we simply cannot afford the money to keep up all the other trees." Zkerat's husband, Abed, used to work in Israel as a gardener, but since he no longer has a permit to enter or work there, he now takes responsibility for pruning, watering, and caring for the trees throughout the year. Alia works as a chamber maid in an East Jerusalem hotel and cleans private offices. But for the nine days of the picking season, in late October and early November, Alia was in the groves. Picking the olives is a family affair. Zkerat's 20 olive trees yielded 108 liters of olive oil and an additional four large tanks of olives for pickling. The oil will be divided among the family; this year, they will not sell any oil and only the pickled olives, poured into large plastic jars, and sold for about 20 shekels ($5) each, will bring in any income. For Palestinian families, olive oil is much more than just a garnish or a salad dressing; it is considered a food and, for many rural Palestinians, it is also the only source of fat. Alia toasts a piece of flat bread on the gas stove, divides the bread among the guests, and dips her piece into the oil. "I eat olive oil for breakfast everyday," she says. "Sometimes I eat a few olives and I'm off to work. But the olive oil we produced will not even be enough for my family this year and, at some point, I will have to buy more oil to last us until next season." About 10,000 families, some 50,000 people, in the Palestinian territories make their living from the olive trees. Olive oil constitutes between 15 and 19 percent of the total Palestinian agricultural production and 6 percent of the overall GDP, making it the second most important industry, after vegetables, in the West Bank. Throughout the territories, there are an estimated 10.5 million olive trees, covering 92,554 hectares, that produce olive oil, picked olives, olive wood and olive-based products, such as soap and cosmetics. But although the olive has been part of the landscape and livelihood since time immemorial, the industry, largely rural, remains underdeveloped and has not reached its full potential. Local organizations and the Palestinian Authority are trying to improve the situation, but their efforts are often stymied both by tradition and by the effects of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Olive trees are bi-annual; that is, they produce a high yield one season and a low one the next. "This is dictated by the genetics of the olive tree," agricultural engineer Nader Hrimat, who works for the Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem (ARIJ), tells The Report. "One year, the olive tree produces olives in abundance and, in the next, it recovers and produces fewer olives." In the good or massia yield year, the average amount of olive oil produced in the West Bank is 35,000 tons. Of this, 4,000-5,000 tons are exported to Arab and European countries; 10,000-12,000 tons are marketed in Israel; 400-500 tons are used by Palestinians for pickling; and another 400-500 tons are sold in raw form to factories in Israel to be processed for the Israeli market. In the low or shalatona yield year, the average amount of olive oil produced is a mere 6,000-8,000 tons, of which only very small quantities are exported. Furthermore, the price of olive oil varies greatly between the massia and shalatona years. In a good year, a liter of olive oil, obtained from 4-5 kilograms of olives, is sold for 18 shekels; last year, it was sold for 21-25 shekels. Olive production is also affected by weather conditions, with low rainfall dramatically reducing yields. Last year's low rainfall led to a low yield, with only 20,000-22,000 tons of olive oil from the most recent (2008) harvest, even though this should have been a good massia year. While supplementary irrigation can increase yield, low rainfall produces thinner, less fleshy olives - apparent in this year's harvest. Thinner olives produce less oil and a lower income. And olive-bearing olive trees require lots of care and regular pruning and they must be planted in good soil. And yet, despite the trees' demands, the region's produce has some inherent advantages. "Oil from Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, is very different from European olive oils," explains Hrimat. "There is a language for olive oil like there is a language for wine. Experts say oil from this region is soft at the beginning and the long-term aromas linger on the palate, with a strong, peppery burn in the back of the throat." For West Bank Palestinians, the buying and selling of olive oil is not so much a business transaction as barter of favors. Buyers will almost never purchase olive oil from a stranger, preferring to give their business to a relative or acquaintance, who, they hope, will supply the entire annual requirement. The farmer sells his precious olives to the olive press in exchange for pressing; less frequently, families sell to distributors. Palestinians purchase an entire year's worth of olive oil in October, the peak season, when the oil is freshest and the prices are lowest. Because of the high availability, prices are the best right after harvest. In the weeks and months following the harvest, prices will rise. Olives are a labor-intensive industry. Much of the cultivation and all of the harvesting must be done by hand, and labor accounts for more than half of the total cost of production. To produce the best oil, the olives must be harvested at the right time, when they are beginning to turn yellow and ripen. The olives must all be hand-picked and not shaken or beaten off of the tree, to ensure that they are not broken or bruised. To ensure excellent quality oil, olives must also be pressed within 10 hours of being picked. Min al shajar ila al hajar ("from the trees to the rock") goes the local saying, referring to the importance of pressing the olives at the end of each day's picking. Any delay causes the olives to begin to ferment, lowering the quality of the oil, explains Hrimat. While waiting to be pressed, the olives must also be properly stored, away from the heat and sun and spread out, so as not to promote fermentation, which would produce a lower quality olive oil. And, indeed, pressing is the key to the final quality of the olive oil. During the actual pressing, the water that washes the olives before they are pressed must be changed frequently and, once pressed, the oil must be carefully stored to control the levels of acidity and oxides. Throughout the West Bank, there are some 224 commercial presses, which are usually owned and operated independently of the groves. Of these, 194 are fully automatic industrial-sized presses, and 30 are smaller, semi-automatic presses. Instead of receiving cash payment, owners of the presses are usually paid with a percentage of the oil. The olive tree is the oldest cultivated tree in this region and farmers have been depending on it since ancient times. Some of these trees are 1,000 years old and still yield olives. Throughout the Palestinian areas, harvesting season has traditionally been a joyous time. Families working together enjoy the usually pleasant October weather, the harsh summer finally over. The elderly would generally lounge on blankets with bread, labaneh (a yogurt-like cheese) and tea while the children and able adults, men and women, picked the olives, one by one. "We farmers rely on the olives as our household food and family income. The trees are tied into our culture - wedding and other celebrations are planned around the harvest because that is when the money comes in," explains Zkerat. "At the harvest, the whole family goes out together to pick the olives, then we celebrate with a feast." After a long day of hard work, Zkerat recalls, "the women would go the kitchen, just before finishing the day's picking and start preparing the meal. But now that our families are getting bigger, and our olive crop is becoming smaller, there is less need or desire to celebrate," she says, looking down. Economic analysts main- tain that local farmers are not realizing their full potential and that major agricultural, fiscal and attitudinal changes are necessary in order to produce the consistently excellent quality product that the region is capable of producing. According to Jamil Hjazin, project coordinator at Fair Trade Development Center, an initiative launched by the Institute for Community Partnership (ICP) at Bethlehem University, investment in Palestinian olive presses has been minimal over recent years, due to the generally difficult economic situation and the unstable political reality. Hjazin says that in order for exports to increase, hygienic standards must be improved. Furthermore, farmers need to be convinced to pool their olives so there are enough to press collectively on a daily basis, but this is difficult, given familial and tribal loyalties and traditions. Extract from article in Issue 18, December 22, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. 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