Israeli Life: Oil in the Family
Olive trees symbolize the ancient and modern land of Israel, but only recently have Jews cultivated the groves that dot the country.
Simha Halperin slips on a pair of worn sandals and heads out his back door, walking past the cowshed to his olive grove. It is October, shortly before harvest season, and he is inspecting the olives for ripeness. “People say ‘oh, olive tree, olive tree,'” he says, squishing a Maalot olive between his fingers and smelling the oil that trickles out. “But each variety has its own special distinctions.” Halperin has been drawn to olive trees since his Army days, when he was stationed on a base beside an ancient grove. “I used to sit and look at the beauty of the branches,” he says. “Each trunk was like a sculpture. I loved them.”
Later, the city boy from Haifa married a farmer’s daughter from nearby Sde Yaakov and inherited a small plot of land there, where he planted his own grove as a hobby.
But it just wasn’t enough. Halperin is among a growing number of Israelis who want a more meaningful connection with the land. Two years ago, he quit his bank job of 28 years to work full time harvesting olives for oil.
Modern Israeli farmers are newcomers to Israel’s olive oil industry. Because of the oil’s place in Jewish history and tradition and because of Israeli postcard images boasting olive tree landscapes and ancient presses, the state is perceived as a strong producer, with Jews heavily invested in the industry. But this has never been true.
The tens of thousands of acres of ancient olive groves across Israel are primarily cultivated by Arab farmers, who still employ ancient farming techniques; most handpick the olives and do not water, fertilize or replant trees.
Jewish farmers, until recently, almost exclusively raised olives for eating, not for their oil. But as demand for olive oil increases, as the science of cultivating the plants grows and as Israelis seek a renewed link to the land, a new generation of oil experts is coming to the fore.
According to Shimon Lavee, a horticulturist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a leading expert on olive trees, the first trees originated 20,000 years ago along the eastern Mediterranean and were domesticated in the area from the southern Galilee and across Lebanon at least 6,000 years ago.
With the knotty trees dominating the ancient landscape, it’s no wonder that Jewish literature shows a strong connection between olive oil and the people and land of Israel. Olive oil was used in the First and Second Temples for sacrifices and anointing kings and priests. The word messiah, or mashiah, literally means the anointed one. Only pure olive oil was used to light the Temple menora, and, according to tradition, it is preferable to use a wick and olive oil each week to light the Shabbat flames.
Olive oil, of course, has a central role in the story of Hanukka, celebrated this month. During the Maccabean rebellion against Hellenist pressure to assimilate, the menora in the Second Temple stayed lit for eight days with one day’s worth of oil. In commemoration, many light the hanukkiya with oil.
“Olive oil was the most common and best oil in ancient times—and we have many midrashim [about it],” says Rabbi Ariel Picard, a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and an expert on Jewish law. “For example, that the Jewish people are like olive oil, because [they] are sometimes squeezed [like olives] and this is what brings out the best in them. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of mentions of olive oil in Torah, midrash and Talmud.”
Over the years, however, olive trees were not always treated with reverence. For example, during the Turkish occupation whole groves were destroyed to use the wood for fuel and to build a railway. Nevertheless, olives remained a popular crop for oil consumption and export to surrounding countries—until the founding of Israel.
“Olives as a crop for modern Israeli industry was almost unthinkable because of the low yield and the high manual labor,” says Lavee. “In 1948, the total area of olive trees in Israel was about [30,000 acres]. But traditional agriculture used in Palestinian areas did not prove economic for the new settlements.”
After they failed to make profits, 50,000 groves disappeared in the first 20 years of the state, neglected, abandoned or uprooted.
“We started growing for oil with modern orchards only 10 years ago because of demand,” says Reuven Birger, an adviser with the Ministry of Agriculture.
The rising consumption rate may be related to a growing public awareness of cooking and health trends. In 2004, the United States Food and Drug Administration approved the claim that the monosaturated fat from olive oil could reduce risk of heart disease. Studies released this year show that properties in olive oil reduce risk of heart attack, stroke, some cancers and Alzheimer’s disease.
With advances in genetics, saline and waste water irrigation, mechanical harvesting and techniques such as crowding trees and overcompensating with fertilizer, Israel can also produce much more oil than previously. The results have been so successful that Israeli crop experts are in demand around the world, most recently in Azerbaijan and China.
The major change in the industry occurred in the 1990’s, after Lavee and his team developed a hearty olive tree, the Barnea. The tree’s medium-sized olives can be used for oil or for the table. The Barnea now accounts for 50 percent of the olives grown in Israel and in all new olive-growing countries around the world, such as Australia, South Africa, Argentina and New Zealand.
The most popular olive oil in the Middle East, however, is made from an older variety, the Lebanese Souri, which is grown today in Israel and Jordan. It produces an aromatic, strong-tasting oil.
Israelis have also developed the Maalot variety and the not-yet-marketed Kadesh, a “diet” green table olive with 2 percent oil, compared to the usual 15 to 25 percent.
Organizations like the Israel Olive Oil Board (www.oliveboard.org.il) promote the industry by presenting lectures, workshops, competitions and tastings. Heading many of the workshops is Fathi Abd Elhadi, a Ministry of Agriculture growing guide and Israel’s olive oil tasting expert.
“In Israel we have great oils and quality has really improved in the last 10 years,” says Elhadi, who hand-picked the 20-member tasting panel by testing them on their sense of taste and smell.
He grew up in a family of traditional farmers in an Arab village. After finishing a doctorate in horticulture, he traveled across Italy and Spain studying olive oil. “I loved it and decided to teach the theories and practice here,” Elhadi explains.
Olive oil is judged by three positive attributes: pungency, bitterness and aroma. Aroma includes almonds, tomatoes or bananas, says Elhadi. There are also 30 negative attributes, ranging from rancid and musty to metallic or acidic. Attributes are affected by variety, soil quality, quantity of water and how fast olives get to the press.
However, like much in the region, crop production can be affected by politics. Because of Israeli security measures, Palestinian olive growers face problems cultivating their groves, prompting some Israeli organizations, such as Rabbis for Human Rights, to volunteer to cultivate and sell Palestinian olive oil.
Elhadi says that the situation for Arab farmers in Israel is totally different: “In the territories it might take a Palestinian farmer half a day to get to his grove that is just a few meters away. But in Israel there are no problems. Nobody bothers us.”
Though Jewish and Arab producers work separately, pickers work together all the time on Jewish farms, says farmer Ilan Cohen from the Jezreel Valley. “Palestinian farmers are the most skilled. I prefer to give work to locals, not foreign workers,” he explains.
Oil presses in Israel, owned primarily by Arab families, also bring olive workers together on a daily basis during the harvest season.
“Everyone becomes just a person who loves oil and eats from the same plate,” says Halperin. “I go with a kippa, and it doesn’t bother anyone. There are no politics at the oil press. We talk about taste, aroma, types, and we taste each other’s oil. It’s like a festival.”
Both small farmers like Halperin and big growers such as those on kibbutzim bet that the Israeli public will take olive oil more seriously. The Arab population as a whole uses much more olive oil. But in many Jewish areas, olive oil is still seen as a specialty item; it certainly is more expensive than other oils.
But Jewish consumption is rising. It went from nearly zero to 6,000 tons a decade ago to 15,000 tons today—about 5.5 pounds annually per capita. Since Israel cannot produce the amount it consumes, it imports 8,000 tons from Europe and the Palestinian Authority a year, to complement the 7,000 tons it makes annually. Export has always been extremely low (see box, page 28).
Despite advances, the industry is struggling. Today, Israel has some 200-plus oil producers with about 49,421 acres of olive groves. The majority, Arab olive farmers with small plots, don’t have enough money to lay irrigation. Arab farm unions doubt that Israel will earmark funds for them. Scientists say the government also allocates fewer research grants than previously for studies on increasing crop production.
“It is not clear if Israel will meet demands even in another 10 years, even with growth in the sector,” says Reuven Birger. “Israel is a small country with scarce land resources in many areas, and other alternative crops, like avocados, are still more profitable.”
The number of olive groves that can be developed depends on the amount of recycled water that can be allocated to the olive industry, says Lavee, “since no grove can afford [miles] of feeding pipe.”
Jewish farmers also face issues that growers in other countries do not: They follow procedures guided by Jewish law. For example, rabbis check to make sure that no fruit is picked before a tree is at least three years old.
This year the amount of oil produced worldwide will fall because of a drought in Spain, the world’s leading producer. Also, olive trees have a genetic trait that causes them to yield high amounts of oil every other year, and this will be a low-yield season for Israel. As a result, says Birger, prices will go up some 30 percent.
Regardless, most of the new, small Israeli olive farmers don’t go into the business to become rich.
Sitting on a dirt path, running his fingers through his family’s soil, Ilan Cohen watches as the setting sun throws shadows over his groves of olive and pomegranate trees.
He is looking forward to this year’s harvest. The olive oil business he launched in recent years has made him feel more attached to the land, his family and his neighbors.
“When we used to solely raise dairy cows, there was no connection between the needs of our cows and the land, since farmers started buying [feed] instead of growing [it],” Cohen says. “I had a will to use the land; I love the land and I love trees. So I decided to plant a native crop.
“It changes the whole family connection,” he explains. “The whole family participates. It’s a different kind of work—we eat on the ground under the trees. We talk under the trees on break. This was the style of Arabs who work by hand and bring their family, even small children, to help. But with Jews it happens now, too. It’s quite an experience.”