“What is an olive tree? An olive tree is an old, old, old and a child with a branch on his forehead” he prayed. Rafael Alberti. Those old men to whom the poet alludes are some more than 2000 years old and one by one make up the drops that paint the sea of ​​olive groves in Andalusia with green specks. The nearly 166 million trees that characterize its landscape make Spain not only the producer of 50% of olive oil worldwide, but also the epitome of Mediterranean culture and gastronomy that has characterized the peoples of the south for centuries. . However, this has not prevented it from being plunged into a serious crisis.

According to the report “Approach to the Costs of Olive Tree Cultivation”, from Spanish Association of Municipalities of Olivo (AEMO), the traditional olive grove accounts for 71% of all cultivated land (more than 2.5 million hectares). Of the total, 49% corresponds to traditional mechanizable olive groves and 22% to Traditional Non-Mechanizable Olive groves (OTNM). However, due to the devaluation of this ‘liquid gold’, and the disharmony between the volumes of production and consumption, more than 130,000 hectares ofOTNM, are in the process of abandonment. This is because this type of crop is found on slopes with more than 20% incline, so it does not allow the use of machinery. As its process is entirely manual, it makes its production cost higher than other types of farms. Specific, more than 130,000 hectares (25%) are already in the process of abandonment. And according to the report Let’s save the good oil, more than 500,000 hectares could suffer the same fate in the course of the next decade.

“The cost of harvesting per kilo of olives in our olive grove is between 20 and 25 cents per kilo of olives; in an intensive olive grove they do it at 6 cents per kilo of olives. This is one of the reasons why they can be in danger”, points out Nuria Yaez, director of Almazaras de la Subbtica. In addition to the traditional olive grove system (machinable and non-machinable) there are other types of mechanized production that coexists with the artisanal format: the intensive olive grove system, which consists of young olive trees with densities between 200 and 600 trees per hectare, with a life expectancy of about 40 years, and the system Super Intensive, which consists of rows of very young olive trees, with a life expectancy between 12 and 14 years, with which densities of between 1000 and 2000 trees per hectare are achieved.

A group of tourists takes a guided tour in an olive grove in JanOlecola San Francisco

“The traditional olive grove is totally necessary, essential and irreplaceable” he assures Christopher Cano, Secretary General of the Union of Small Farmers and Ranchers of Andalusia (UPA-Andaluca). Of the 2.5 million hectares of olive groves for oil in Spain, 350,000 are super intensive and, for Cano, the volume of production and the qualities of the traditional olive grove “are essential to satisfy the needs of the markets”, since the varieties are not the same as in other forms of cultivation. “The olive varieties of super-intensive production need a percentage of traditional oil to maintain themselves over time. The growing demand will never be able to supply exclusively based on intensive or super-intensive cultivation”, he points out.

Regardless of market fluctuations, the intrinsic characteristics of the OTNM mean that it can never compete with the intensive or super intensive, so his crisis could be perennial, and abandonment, irrefutable. The consequence that this supposes not only reflects the abandonment of production, but also of rural municipalities, with the price that this implies for the balance of ecosystems and indigenous varieties. “The olive grove is our landscape heritage and the picudo variety is our cultural heritage. We maintain the plant covers,” says Ynez. In addition to the indigenous varietals used by the OTNM that promote the protection of these species and from which unique and exclusive oils are extracted, this type of traditional cultivation is also a source of employment and a barrier against desertification. In addition, the OTNM absorbs about one million tons of CO2 per day.

How much is the ‘gold’ worth?

A bottle pours olive oil into a bowl
A bottle pours olive oil into a bowlThe world

Spain is a country known worldwide for its centenary -and millenary- production of wine and olive oil. There are thousands of generations of farmers of “forest and race” – as the poet said Antonio Machado– whose tradition and artisan know-how of indigenous varieties provide added value that other oils do not have.

In order to Paula Lopes, Director of Quality at Deoleo, this is not trivial, since oil is “much more” than a simple product. “It is the DNA of Spain and due to its native varieties, it should also be used to promote oleotourism, since here there is a work of century after century. It is a pity that it is regarded as any olive grove,” he laments.

However, its exclusivity, far from being reflected in the thickness of the commercialization, refracts the multiple factors of its constant neglect. “If we want to compete in the same market for bulk oils and undifferentiated oils, we are never going to be profitable,” says Cano. And he adds: “Olive growers have to do their homework and make a difference, passing on to the consumer what is behind the olive oil they buy.” For Cano, it is not only that the added value of the product comes from the exclusivity of its raw material, but also from the management of the territory and the strengthening of the social and labor fabric in the rural world. Something that in the province of Jan – which “triples Italian production” – is crucial.

The differentiation of unconventional olive oils

This you know very well Manuel Jimnez, dDirector of Production of Olecola San Francisco. Jimnez has managed to thrive his factory in the same way that trees that bend to survive blizzard zones do: by adapting. This farmer, a member of the second generation of the family business, assures that when his father bought the factory it was obsolete. “We began to see that manufacturing oil and selling it in bulk was less and less business, so we had to stop to think about what to do to stay alive and not close, that’s why we started making high-end oils and selling them in bottles. So we activated the marketing of packaging “, he narrates. From that success, they began to offer visits to the factory and the fields, which has managed to become an epicenter of Jan’s oleotourism.

Located in the Jaén municipality of Begjar, in pre-pandemic times at its doors came up to 8,000 people a year. “Almost three times more than the entire population of the town,” he says. And, although the crisis has weighed down the sector for years, Jimnez assures that what has saved him have been the tourist visits that also translate into direct buyers of his gourmet oils. “In addition, our distribution channel is not focused on the type of large hypermarkets,” he points out.

Jos and Manuel Jimnez, owners of Olecola San Francisco
Jos and Manuel Jimnez, owners of Olecola San FranciscoOlecola San Francisco

Although for Jimnez, this format composed of the exploitation of the traditional olive grove “is not necessarily the magic solution” for all Spanish families of small farmers, for Yez it is essential to promote the economy of these crops, so that they ensure exclusive quality oils, as well as the culture and prosperity of these rural areas. “That the farmer who is sustainable is valued!” “That the one who works and who conserves the soil, the flora, the fauna and the native varieties be rewarded! He emphasizes. For Cano, the sky is the limit, since in the pandemic year sales increased by 14%. “Of the total fat consumed in the world, oil does not constitute even 3% and we have grown in exports. We have a sector with enormous potential, but this must be shared, it cannot be the pasture of bad commercial practices”, judgment.

Like the omen of the dove that brought an olive branch in its beak to announce the end of the flood to No, the lifting of US tariffs and high demand for the product have calmed the murky waters of the olive market. This new sun has allowed the stabilization of a large part of the sector, and incidentally has culminated with the presentation of the candidacy for Jan’s “sea of ​​olive trees” (66 million trees) to be part of the Unesco World Heritage List. “The olive grove is the glue that has fixed the population to our peoples,” says Cano. And in that millennial story, there are still many blank pages to be filled in by the 300,000 farming families of OTNM of our time.

That, as long as the consumer knows the true value of that ‘gold’ that comes from their lands.

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