Saturday, 23 May 2009

Summer's coming

The life and times of an olive farmer and his wife!
Summer’s coming and we olive farmers are preparing for the watering that’s needed during the hotter months. An olive tree will survive and even prosper with no water at all for months on end but to ensure the maximum quantity of oil one needs to sparingly apply judicious amounts of the wet stuff at the right times.
It’s not a case of simply turning on a tap and sitting about reading a novel for a few hours then turning it off. The black plastic pipes you will notice criss-crossing the olive groves develop all sorts of problems over the year and need maintenance if disaster or inefficient usage is to be avoided. This year , before I can begin watering I guess I’ve got about four or five days of repair work to do; mending splits, clearing the watering holes in the pipes (which get clogged up over the winter), checking that the wire ties that close the end of each run are in place (if they’re not, the pipe will have a mouse’s nest in it or be full of snails), changing some of the junctions where the smaller pipes join the main feed.
The water comes from a pump house at the top of bore hole which delves down 300 meters or so into the mountainside and is fed, under huge pressure, through the complicated tap arrangements into the c. 10cm diameter mains pipe. I understand the pressures involved following a little accident last year! I’d forgotten that I should open a certain feed pipe off the mains to let the water go down to one of my groves. I turned on the main tap (always accompanied by a scary and very loud rushing noise!) and began to wander the 100 yards or so down the road to the grove I was trying to water. Suddenly there was the most almighty explosion and a 40 meter high geyser of water appeared (making, I noticed, some nice little rainbows), drenching the road. The bang echoed and reverberated around the valley. It took me a few seconds, in my daze, to realise that this was something I’d done and it wasn’t something I could watch with interest but something I had to do something about. I quickly turned off the mains tap (more scary noises) and ran to inspect the damage. Finding the main pipe had split, I realised that I would have to repair the section before the next user turned up at their allotted time.
Now, being new to all this I had no idea how to do the job nor what tools I’d need. I did understand that I’d have to cut out the damaged piece and either insert a new piece with a couple of unions, or pull the ends together and use one union. I took down the number from the side of the pipe and rushed off to the shop in Sitia.
About the tools you need for the job; one of them is a blowtorch, another is an empty Mythos bottle (Amstel won’t do, apparently, it has to be Mythos). What you do is use the blow torch to heat up and soften the pipe that you’ve cut, then use the neck of the Mythos bottle to open up the aperture a bit with a sort of round and round motion so that you can force the steel union into the pipe , then clip it into place with a great big version of those little cir-clip thingies that you see on the radiator pipes in cars. Easy, if only the guy in the shop had told me so.
Back at the pipe I used a hacksaw to cut out the offending piece (not too hard, that bit) then made to push the steel union in. Of course, it wouldn’t go! Why ,I’d imagined it would just push fit! Without a lump hammer to hand, I picked up a rock and started hammering away and quickly realised that I’d got something of a job to do . Over the next four hours (yes, four hours) in the blazing sun I earned myself as fine a collection of blisters as you could hope to see but eventually fixed the flipping thing. (It takes 20 mins and no effort with the right tools! That‘s what the empty Mythos bottle is doing in the pick-up, your honour….)
Back to the tap I went to test the thing and worrying that I’d bodged it up. In fact, so concerned was I that I clean forgot to open the feed pipe that I’d missed before! In trepidation I opened the mains tap again and the thing blew up ,again, this time right underneath me and giving me the most almighty scare and a tremendous soaking to boot.
I guess if there’d been wise old Greek olive farmers about they’d have had a great laugh at the amateur Englishman and his elementary misunderstanding of the watering system that they’ve used for years, and they would have been right to. I have a good laugh about it now myself, and towards the end of the summer last year I had a small chuckle when a familiar bang echoed around the valley, only this time it wasn’t me that had done it…
We’ve got to run a new feed pipe soon to the little vineyard on our orchard plot. It’s got to come from the end of one of our existing pipes and travel about a hundred meters across a steep, thorn bush covered hillside to get to where it’s needed. What you get used to in this olive farming lark is skin covered in scratches and trousers and shirts getting shredded on a regular basis. Fortunately, we bought really stout leather work gloves in England last year (at £7 a pair!) that are resistant to the worst of the thorns, so at least our hands are spared.
As I write I’m keeping a close eye on some logs that are lying about on a couple of groves adjacent to ours. The farmer has done a major prune, cleared away all the brushwood but left his firewood on the site to be collected later. Last year we did the same thing and turning up one day found that every log had become infested with a type of burrowing beetle, leaving little holes about every 20cm or so and little piles of sawdust where they’d gone in. On checking the books, we discovered that they lay their eggs in the cut timber and some days later (usually about 20) out come thousands of dear little beetles that promptly drill themselves into the nearest olive trees, (which, in the case of this guy’s woodpiles, happen to be our trees). In Spain there are some villages where the tradition of storing wood piles outside the back door means that trees for a hundred meters or so are infested with the little beauties and unproductive as a result.

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