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Olives: romance and reality

Spain produces 50% of the world’s olive oil - far more than Italy or Greece - and Extremadura is one of the country's big producers. But, as olive grower Andy has discovered, it’s a tough business.

When, some years ago, my wife Clare and I were faced with cropping our newly acquired olive trees for the first time, we needed advice. In those days, before there were YouTube tutorials on just about everything, the place in every village where knowledge was stored and shared was the pensionista. Subsidised by the town hall, it was where you’d find the elders of the village. Ours was a large room with a bar where the older men and women, but mainly men, gathered to play cards or dominoes, sip manzanilla (camomile tea rather than the sherry) and talk about the weather. We recognised Rogelio, approached with our dictionary and notebook, and began asking questions. Within an hour or so we had noted down the advice of everyone present - the combined experience of a few hundred years of olive growing.

The next day, armed with hand rakes, sticks, olive nets and a couple of enthusiastic friends, we set about the first of our fifty trees. The enormous nets were spread beneath the tree from the trunk to beyond the reach of the furthest branch. You can get motorized rakes that vibrate the olives from the branches but we were going como los romanos (like the Romans) and picking by hand. Everyone chose a place to start, the nimblest heading up the middle of the tree, and we raked the olives from the branches, watching them fall onto the nets.

We were collecting the vuelos, the olives still on the tree. These are more valuable than the suelos, or fallen olives, as they haven’t touched the ground. (The suelos are still collected but their oil can only be used for industrial purposes.) We'd been advised that we should also prune our trees. This, we were told, would take years to learn, but the basics seemed to be that the crown or centre branches needed to be removed in order to let the sun into the tree. “Every olive needs to be kissed by the sun at some point during the day” said Rogelio. “A bird should be able to fly easily through the middle of the tree” added Vicente. Mindful of all the advice so generously given, we picked and pruned happily in the November sunshine until we broke for a picnic of jamón, bread, cheese and local pitarra wine. It’s a surprisingly absorbing occupation, relatively leisurely, and it was with a real sense of satisfaction that we loaded four sacks containing around a hundred kilos of freshly picked olives onto the trailer.

That's the romance. The reality for the small olive producer in Spain today is very different.

On a good year a fully laden tree will provide around 30kg of olives. But olive trees, like apple trees, tend to fruit well one year and poorly the next. Once collected and delivered to the mill the farmer hopes to get up to 14% by weight in virgin olive oil, that is 14 litres per 100kg of olives. If, as is usually the case, a team of pickers are contracted to harvest the olives they will take 50% of the crop as payment. So our neighbour Fidel, who has 500 trees, hopes to grow about 7500kg of olives each year. The pickers take 3750kg leaving him with the same. If they are all vuelos then he might just get 500 litres of oil to sell. Now, bearing in mind that he also has to prune and fertilise 500 trees and the market price of olive oil has recently fallen by 20%, it’s sad but not really surprising that this year he was in two minds whether to bother picking them at all. “I might as well leave them for the birds” he told me.

It’s not just Fidel who's struggling. Spain’s entire agricultural sector, numbering some 800,000 producers, is in crisis. Farmers have been protesting in Madrid and across provincial Spain calling for precios justos para el campo, fair prices for the countryside. They blame the big buyers (Mercadona, Carrefour, Lidl) who are accused of pushing down prices to the point where small producers are forced to sell their crops at a loss. To make matters worse, the recent US tariffs on Spanish olive oil, cheese and wine are estimated to have cost the Spanish agricultural sector close to a billion dollars.

It would be a real shame if things get so bad that Fidel and those like him decide to stop producing olives and dig up their trees to use the land for grazing. The Extremaduran landscape is as varied as it is beautiful and the orderly olive groves are a vital part of that beauty. So, what can be done? Perhaps the government will bow to pressure and intervene to help the farmers achieve more sustainable prices. In the meantime, as consumers perhaps the best we can do is to keep buying plenty of locally produced olive oil, and pour it liberally onto our breakfast tostada with tomatoes or honey each morning.

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