The life and times of an olive farmer (and his wife!)
For the uninitiated, “Akoma?” is Greek for “still?” We got to hear “akoma?” an awful lot from our neighbouring farmers and friends as our harvesting, begun on December 11th, dragged on through January and finally ended, with a groan and a whimper, on February 4th.
At the beginning of December, as our first harvest approached, we were full of uncertainty, indecision - and our usual lack of planning. Our first harvest. Should we hire labour, or do it ourselves? Could we do it ourselves? Which nets should we buy, and how many? Should we bag the olives up in sacks, or get the new fangled plastic boxes? What generator should we buy to power the picking sticks? Which picking sticks should we buy? Where should we get our olives pressed, and how should we go about that? What colour should the olives be when you pick them? How long have we got before the wind blows them off the trees? And so on and so on.
We began with the generator. Fortunately, the guy in the shop spoke reasonable English and was someone we’d met a year ago at our first “Kazarni”. Lord only knows what impression he’d gained of us. Anyway, we took his advice and plumped for the “Robin”, relatively inexpensive, everybody uses them, they don’t go wrong. “Robin”, as we naturally call him, burbles along merrily all day without a hitch, is easy to start and economical to run. He’s not so big and heavy as some of the others we’d looked at, which we later discovered was a true blessing.
From the same chap we bought the picking “sticks”. The more usual stick, about 2 metres long with a rotating crosspiece on the end with 15cm nylon flails, whizzes around and beats the olives into submission, knocking them down onto the nets spread out around the tree. Alas, they also beat the leaves off, leaving the tree with a recovery job to do. We chose instead a new type which looks about the same, but at the ends of the crosspiece a sort of globe of stiff rubber fingers sticks out. They spin, but as soon as they meet resistance in the tree they reverberate back and forth, shaking and knocking the olives off but mercifully almost no leaves. They arouse a great deal of interest from other farmers, such that we’ve been stopped in the street quite a few times for an opinion on them, expressed with much sign language of course.
We bought six 12 x 6 metre nets (not enough , but at c. 50 Euro a throw we resented the idea of buying more) and in the end opted for sacks, because everyone else does and at 60 lepta each they were a give away compared to 6.50 Euro for the boxes which held only half the weight.
So , we were (nearly) kitted up. I say nearly , because it’s only after you’ve picked a few trees that you realise that an olive, travelling at c.40 km/h straight into your eye is not funny. Safety glasses!
The first of our groves we’d elected to pick has about 200 trees, 40 of them very small but the rest too big and overgrown. The grove runs on a steep slope for two thirds of its length, then terraces form the last third. Access for the pick-up consists of a place to park at the top, and a muddy track at the bottom which we’d made earlier in the year and which ,if there’s been no rain, lets you get about half way up. This, we realised quickly, is key information. If you’re fifty metres from the truck and it’s uphill, everything you pick has to go on your back at the end of the day. Now we know how Sherpas feel.
Our little routine for each day went as follows: Up at 7.15, we first walk out onto our balcony in Sitia and look up the valley to where our land can be seen and check it’s not raining. If it is, then it’s back to bed (hurrah!), if not Anne makes the tea, makes up the flasks and our elevenses (toast with olive oil for me, marmalade for her) and our picnic lunch. I moan and groan, drink tea and smoke until I feel human. If Anne hadn’t been there cracking the whip half the harvest would have rotted on the trees. Then it’s cart the sticks and bags down to the pick-up. We keep “Robin” in the front seat over night, so he has to be hauled out and tied up in the back. I did suggest at one time that it would save me a lifting job if Anne would ride in the back of the truck, but for some reason she told me to “go away”!
Tie the sticks in, check we’ve got petrol in the can for “Robin”, and off we go. Fifteen minutes drive brings us to the spring where we stop and fill up our water bottles for the day, then 3 minutes more and we’re there. Unload “Robin”, the sticks and the water and lunch stuff and carry heave and pull it all to where we’d left the nets the previous day and we’re ready to start.
Our very first day of picking started with a shock. When you buy your nets they come wrapped in a tight bale, deceptively heavy. We’d left the bale on the grove the day before in the wheelbarrow on the steep slope where we were due to start. On arrival that morning I’d climbed out of Hank (the pick-up!) and gone to the spot. The barrow was lying on it’s side. The nets had gone.
“We’ve been robbed!” I shouted. (I’ve deleted several less than savoury words here for the benefit of our more sensitive readers) “ Some (body) has stolen our nets. 300 Euro down the drain.” My good wife , ever the calming influence, simply looked around and pointed to the bale of nets 50 metres down the hill. During the night the barrow had decided that gravity was right after all and it ought to fall over, the bale following the same argument and rolling down the hill.
After lugging them back up the hill we unpacked and set out the nets, learning almost immediately that a) this is harder than it looks, especially on sloping, wet and weedy ground, b) that getting the nets right is absolutely vital or you’ll lose half of what you pick, and c) that dew-damp ground turns into a ski slope once a net’s on it. From then on we each of us fell over at least once a day. How we survived without a sprain or a fracture we’ll never know. A laugh when it happens, though.
We started “Robin”, connected our picker wires to the terminals and got stuck in. 8 hours later we’d picked about 75 kilos of olives. Two days later we’d picked four full sacks. We did get quicker!
For anyone thinking of losing their wits and trying olive farming for fun or profit (ha!) please, before you buy, look closely at the steepness of the land and the access for your vehicle. I carry half sacks of olives (about 30 kilos) to the pick up. The distance averages about 40 metres but at times has been 70 metres, straight uphill. The first trip is bad enough. If you’ve picked 8 half sacks in a day and have to heave and pull a generator over the same bumpy ground it all becomes something of a trial.
A few days before we’d started we’d made arrangements with an olive press where, as luck would have it, the office is managed by the lovely Maria, who speaks great English. The press is ideal for us. With their modern “Alfa Laval” machinery they can batch process even small amounts of olives (so our oil isn’t mixed with anyone else’s) and they’re getting certified to process organic olives, for which we’re heading . Our first batch for pressing, a measly four sacks marked as ours with a spray painted orange “W” on each sack , looked pathetic and lonely stacked on a pallet under the lemon tree which became “our” spot at the press. Everyone else seemed to turn up with a pick-up ridiculously overloaded , with 20 or 30 sacks flattening the suspension. Needless to say, we felt pretty small beer in this company.
The atmosphere at the press is, generally, pretty grumpy. Possibly because this is a poor year for olives, more likely because when you go to the press after a hard days picking you’ve hardly the energy to smile. And, like small farmers the world over, all the farmers know that they’ll make virtually nothing for their efforts, the real profit lying much further up the food chain. For us, being the oddity of being English amongst an almost exclusively old-Greek-farmer-family-been-here-for-generations crowd, perhaps it was worse. “They’ll get used to us in 20 or 30 years” I said, to encourage Anne.
The pressing process began with our olives being tipped into the big hopper then carried on the conveyor belt to a blower that separated the leaves, then into a bath for a wash, then weighed in another hopper, then piped into the first part of the press where they were mashed up and churned. After about 40 minutes we lifted the lid on the churning machine. Puddles of bright green olive oil had begun to appear. When ready, the pulp was piped to a separator that took out the solids, then piped to a centrifuge from whence the oil appeared. Our excitement mounted as the process went on until, moment of moments, our incredibly luminous bright green cloudy oil emerged from the pipes. A year’s hard graft had gone into this moment. The acidity, we learned was well below 0.3, the best of extra virgin oils. The taste, we found out that evening, was sublime. We’d lucked out in buying, before we knew anything about olives, trees that produce olives which produce a kilo of great oil from every 4.5 kilos of olives picked. It can be as low as 10 to one.
Of course, what began as an exciting and daunting leap into the unknown quickly became a drudgery, an effort, and back-achingly hard work. We picked only on dry days, sometimes managing only half a day but rarely breaking for more than 20 minutes for our picnic lunch. There are of course compensations. It’s cheaper and more healthy than joining a gym. Our groves, high up the valley side, give commanding views across the incredibly green valley of olive groves, interspersed with stately spires of Cypress and the clustered white houses of villages clinging to the hillside opposite. To the left the mountains gain in altitude and majesty as they head for the south coast, to the right the valley sweeps down for 8 kilometres to Sitia and the sea, of which we have a nice view. We can hear other families picking their olives right across the valley, we get beeped at by all the farmers that drive past on the “main” road (one vehicle every half hour!). Otherwise, it’s just us , the birdsong, the plaintive calls of the buzzards riding a thermal overhead, the sunshine and a pervading sense of peace and serenity that seems to inhabit this place, occupied and farmed for 6000 years.
We don’t, by the way, know most of the farmers that beep their horns. But we know they know of us. The village grapevine of gossip means they all know we’re the crazy English. They’ll know who we bought the groves from, for how much, what our trees are like, how we measure up in farming terms. In a kindly way they’re watching over us, dropping hints and tips when we meet, making suggestions, giving praise where due, surprising us with their intimate knowledge of every inch of our groves. A lot of youngsters locally can’t wait to get away from the lives their parents have lived. We guess it’s nice for them to see people coming here who can appreciate it for what it is.
By February the fourth it was no longer “Akoma?” but “Telios!”, The End! We’d stuck it out, and with a little help from our friends (especially the stalwart Danny) we’d picked 4,600 kilos of olives, and pressed just over a 1000 kilos of oil. For those of a mathematical turn of mind, that’s 153 x 30 kilo sacks hauled up the slopes. We’ve hardly argued at all, laughed a lot, and only fallen out of one tree.
At the current price of 2.9 Euro a litre, we won’t even cover our costs for the year, but the sense of achievement, somehow, makes up for it.