Bumper olive crop expected in Syria

As harvest begins, unrest apparently hasn’t kept farmers from picking fruit; country expects to produce 200,000 tons of oil from olive trees.

Olive tree 311  (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
Olive tree 311
(photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
With an all-time record of over 200,000 tons of oil projected to be produced from olive trees this year, Syria has the potential of becoming a Middle East oil power of a sort even as its economy has been paralyzed by months of unrest.
The turmoil has exacted a heavy toll on the country’s $60 billion economy, but people in the industry insist it has not had a major impact on olive picking. The harvest started a few weeks ago along the regions of the Mediterranean coast and will progress eastward over the next couple of months until the season ends in February.
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“Labor is fine. It is there. I think that they are going as normal,” Ramez Djaroueh of the Zirtoon olive oil company near Aleppo, told The Media Line. “I haven’t heard anything to suggest that farmers are having problems.”
Djaroueh, whose family runs a modern olive oil mill and processing plan, was less concerned about the unrest than about the upcoming Eid al-Adha holiday that will take pickers out of the fields.
Business and tourism in Syria has soured. But olive oil is a main stable for Syrians, who are one of the world’s top consumers, downing some five kilos (11 pounds) each annually on average. Five kilos is about five liters a person.
Even though the pro-democracy protests aimed at toppling President Bashar Al-Assad have spread across cities, towns and rural areas of Syria since March, claiming the lives of over 3,000 people, the olive harvest continues, Djaroueh says.
Syria produced 180,000 tons last year, more than Turkey’s 160,000, but only a fraction of what the world leader, Spain, produced - 1.2 million tons, or over half of the world’s olive oil. While Turkey has planted olive groves and expects to produce over 700,000 tons by 2015 and become the world’s second -largest olive oil producer, its Levant neighbor Syria, beset with rebellion and retarded agriculture, has no national strategy beyond just hoping to hold its own as the fourth- or fifth-largest producer in the world.
The Syrian Ministry of Agriculture issued a statement on Tuesday saying that weather conditions are helping the harvest and forecast a production of just 175,000 tons of olive oil. But the International Olive Oil Council (IOOC), a trade body in Madrid, estimates Syria will produce 200,000 tons.
“Unfortunately, we have had very little contact with the Syrians. They are very much afraid to speak to us. They work for the government and they tell us ‘No, everything is all right.’ But we don’t know,” Juliette Cayol of the IOOC, told The Media Line.
Other olive mills and olive oil companies in Syria refused to speak on the telephone or answer e-mail messages about the situation.
About 95% of the world’s olive trees are in the Mediterranean region. Olive oil is so well liked and is such an integral part of the cuisine that according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) Mediterranean basin countries also account for 77% of the world’s consumption.
But elsewhere around the world, olive oil consumption has dramatically risen over the past decade – largely due to the popularity of the “Mediterranean diet.” World olive oil consumption will reach 2.98 million tons, with a 3.7 % increase from 2009.
While Italy and Spain long ago captured the brand as the globe’s supreme olive oil producers, Syria has focused its limited export market to the Arab world and now, like the rest, on China.
“Our prices are higher,” said Djaroueh. “We have special trade agreements with countries like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other Arab countries. These are our main export markets. China now is picking up for Syria as well. We have some sales in the United States but they are mostly buying from Spain.”
Syria exported about 25,000 tons of olive oil last year. “Syrian farmers lack high-quality production techniques, which the government needs to address," Omar Adi, the owner of the Near East Olive Products company near Hama was quoted as saying in the Syrian Times. "The Syrian olive oil is good, but in the international market, you need a high, stable quality.”
Olive oil is a prominent part of the Syrian agriculture industry, contributing some 8% of total output. An estimated 100,000 families directly depend on olive growing. According to government statistics, it provides over 13 million workdays a year just picking them even though the harvest last just part of the year. These figures are expected to decrease, however, as the field becomes more mechanized.
“There are new harvesting machines that have been introduced in the last two years so that should help also cutting down the cost of picking the olives,” Djaroueh said. “It [the yield] should be more this year. I think it could be closer to 215,000 tons.”