Picking the olive crop in Majdal Krum near Haifa.With the scenic green vista of the Galilee as a backdrop, the sounds of Irish music wafted across the landscape that spread out from the stone patio of the small olive press in the village of Avtalion.
As if the sights and sounds wasn’t enough a treat for the senses, visitors who had come to the north of Israel to the annual Olive Branch Festival could also dip fresh pita bread into the substance that was the focus of the event – the tangy golden olive oil crushed at the village.
“Are you having a good time?” one of the coordinators asked a Jewish visitor. “Where are you from? I’m from the village of Arabeh, just down the way.”
Initiated a decade ago, the Olive Branch Festival, which spans two weekends, brings Israelis north to the Galilee for special events, including tours of olive groves and the small factories that press the oil out of the fruit, as well as musical performances, guided tours of the fields, storytelling, farmers markets and demonstrations of gourmet cooking featuring olive oil.
It is also intended as a celebration of coexistence and cooperation among the Jews, Moslems, Christians and Druse who share a passion for growing olives and making olive oil – an endeavor that is both a centuries-old tradition and big business.
While there has been much attention paid to Israeli-Palestinian strife associated with olive growing, there is another side – a less publicized story of cooperation between Jews and Arabs who are learning how to take advantage of the growing market for olive oil.
“I wish that the kind of wonderful cooperation and coexistence that exists between Jews and Arab communities when it comes to the olive harvest extended to every area in the Middle East. If it did, we’d be in great shape right now,” declares Dr. Fathi Abd al-Hadi, an expert on olives and olive oil production who works for the Agriculture Ministry.
As both the Israelis and the world market increase their demand for olive oil – because of its proven health benefits as well as an increased appreciation for its taste – what has been a biblical tradition and the center of life in many Arab villages now has great business potential.
There is a great deal of potential for growth – the Israeli market consumes nearly twice the amount of olive oil that is produced locally. And Israelis are increasingly demanding about the quality of their olive oil: there are currently only 120 producers of olive oil in Israel whose oil is good enough to be officially declared extra-virgin olive oil by the Olive Growers Council.
As a result, a great deal of olive oil is imported into Israel from industry giants like Spain and Italy, and other countries, and very little Israeli-grown oil is exported abroad.
In order to help move the industry forward and encourage small farmers to upgrade and improve their techniques and yield, for the first time, an academic course on olive-growing and olive oil production, is being offered by Tel Hai College, taught by al-Hadi.
They couldn’t have chosen someone who knows the subject better – al-Hadi comes from a family that has grown olives for generations in a village near Afula, and has studied his field intensely in academic settings in both Italy and Spain. Having attended and taught classes in tasting and distinguishing between different types of oil, he is the country’s premier taster of olive oil.
Just as the Israeli palate has been more sophisticated when it comes to wine, and the local industry has taken a sharp upturn in terms of quality with numerous boutique wineries opening, olive oil hasn’t been far behind and the Israeli consumer is now more interested in higher quality oil.
And just as the interest in growing grapes and wine-making fueled Tel Hai’s recently successful wine-making course, the decision was made to invite al-Hadi to teach the fine points of olive production in an academic setting.
“It is going to be a lot of fun. They will learn how to choose the land, how to grow high-quality olives, how to run an olive press – the whole picture,” al-Hadi told ISRAEL21c.
The class will stretch over the course of nine months and will cover every aspect of olives and olive-oil making, including the science of growing the plants in the optimal conditions, harvesting methods, extracting the oil in the best way, all the way down to bottling and labeling the oil and marketing techniques. And of course, they will be schooled in the rich history and culture of olive oil production in the region.
In the making of olive oil, al-Hadi said, tradition and modern technology work in harmony. “I like to say that this is an industry that is thousands of years old – and over all that time, the method of making olive oil hasn’t changed. Only the tools have.”
The interest in the course is high – reflecting the interest in olive-growing, particularly in the Jewish sector, although the majority of the olive presses are Arab-owned.
“It’s not an easy time for agriculture, and people are looking for opportunities,” says al-Hadi. “There is a demand for quality olive oil – both locally and internationally and people are interested in filling it.”
Among the enthusiastic newcomers to the olive oil business is Assaf Pinkas, from moshav Carmei Yosef. Pinkas grew up in a family that has been farmers for five generations – his mother’s family came to Israel from Poland and were one of the founders of Rehovot. His parents met at agricultural school.
Though they made their living from the land, they sent a firm message to their three sons to pursue other professions.
“My father said that there wasn’t a future in agriculture – he wanted us safely working in offices,” said Pinkas.
Following his father’s instructions, Pinkas studied economics and computers in Beersheva, and pursued a career in high-tech: he ended up as a developer at Comverse.
At the same time, he knew that he “didn’t want to throw away what my parents had built” he maintained the family fields with the help of his brothers – growing persimmons, grapes… and olives.
One day, he decided, “I’d had enough” of the high tech life, and decided to change direction and put his primary energy into the family fields, and start a boutique olive oil operation.
He runs the business together with his two brothers – Ido Pinkas is a scientist at the Weizmann Institute, and Ran is a career air force officer.
“But I do the most since I have the time,” said the 36-year-old former programmer.
In order to make a profit, he doesn’t bring his products to the supermarket where he would compete directly with the mass producers.
“My customers are high-end stores and gourmet restaurants, and I sell as much as I can directly to customers who appreciate high-quality olive oil – the fewer middlemen I use, the higher the profit margin.”
Pinkas says that appreciation of olive oil came to him late in life. “I never really thought much about olive oil. I put it in my salad and I didn’t deal with it very much. But when I began to get into the business, I learned about the different tastes, and also the different ways it can be used – you can make an omelet, fry shnitzel (chicken cutlets) – you become aware of what is delicious and good, and you discover what is really high-quality.”
He is pleased that the trend is growing. “You go to the high-end delis and you see the oils and wines and maybe they cost a little bit more, but people over the past 10 years are willing to pay for the quality. That, and the awareness of the good things that the olive oil does for the body, means that we have more and more consumers.”
Pinkas has a lot of dreams for the future. “I would love to have an olive oil press.” Currently, like most olive farmers, he outsources the actual pressing and making of the olive oil.
He still grows grapes on the land which he sells to the large winery of Carmel Mizrahi, “but it would be great to make wine as well. If he did this, he would turn it into an full-fledged attraction with a store selling his products and a visitors center for tasting.”
Hadas Lahav’s involvement in the olive oil business came from an unusual direction – but it led to her being the first company to export Israeli olive oil overseas.
Her company Sindyanna is a non-profit association that grew out of her work with Arab women. Together with her partner Samia Nasser Khatib – from the village of Majdal Krum near where she lives in Haifa – she created an education center for Arab mothers, who wanted to help move their children forward educationally, and the center gave them the tools to help their children with their homework.
“We started to feel that there was a limit to what you could teach women about empowerment without empowering them – and to do that, the women have to work and have economic independence,” recounts Lahav.
As they brainstormed about the possibilities, they decided that they should choose an area already entrenched in the Arab economy. There was considerable concern that the olive farmers in the Arab sector – who own the majority of existing groves – were unable to take advantage of the growing demand for olive oil locally and worldwide – as they are neither large-scale growers like the kibbutzim nor educated aspiring boutique owners like Pinkas.
Sindyanna works to help the Arab growers improve their quality and yield, and provides employment for Arab women, who package and market the olive oil.
Sindyanna’s oil was sold only locally for its first few years – but during tough economic times in 2000, it hit a wall – restaurants it has sold to were closing down, or decided to buy oil from cheaper sources.
Looking for ways to sell her oil, Lahav learned about the IFAT, International Fair Trade Association (IFAT), which promotes products whose manufacture does not involve exploitation or violation of rights. Her Sindyanna products carry the official mark showing that standards are being met regarding working conditions, wages, child labor and the environment.
It turned out to be an invaluable tool to the success of Sindyanna, which has expanded into packaging and marketing olive oil soap, za’atar and carob syrup, some of which are purchased in the Palestinian Authority territory, helping Palestinian women as well as Arab women.
Last year they sold 30 tons of oil to countries including Great Britain, Japan, the United States, Canada, Australia and other countries in Europe.
With all this business, they still view their social mission as the most important one.
Lahav and her partner draw a small salary, and all of its profits going into helping the farmers and investing in ways to employ women. With a small profit they have shown, they rented more spacious quarters and explored ways to employ more women.
“We do everything we can to try to find more work for women – we have run basket-weaving seminars, we’ve trained women to work at home to make perfumes,” said Lahav, adding emphatically “This is not about making money.”
Whether or not politics is in the mix – olive oil, like wine, is something that people get passionate about.
“Every country has preferred qualities in olive oil and everyone thinks their oil is the best. That happens internationally with different preferences regarding aroma and taste in Italy, Spain and Israel,” sums up al-Hadi. Locally, “there are some very intense arguments between villages as to who produces the best oils. It’s not just a business, it’s a tradition.”