With olives pressed and picked, local farmers hope consumers discover oil in Israel
Olive growers and oil producers seek greater exposure for their product, cultivated and pressed in small batches but suffering from competition with cheaper, lower-quality imports
First it was local wines, now it’s olive oil.
Local growers want Israelis to up their olive oil game, swapping out lower quality supermarket imports for locally grown and pressed extra virgin olive oil, straight from the trees.
Some 20,000 tons of olive oil was bottled during the most recent harvest, which ended several weeks ago. Marking the end of the olive season, samples of that pure, golden liquid from more than two dozen olive producers will be on display at the first olive oil fair, Friday, March 17, at Ramat Hanadiv near Zichron Yaakov.
It’s the first fair of its kind because Israel’s olive oil industry is still pretty green, having only moved from canning its olives to pressing them for extra-virgin olive oil in the last 20 years.
Of course, that’s not completely accurate. Olive trees and their fruits have long existed in these parts, and farmers in the local Arab community cultivate olive trees and press olives into oil each season. But Jewish farmers are later adopters.
“The Arab community uses three times as much olive oil,” said Uri Yogev, who runs the Olive Board, part of the Plants Production and Marketing Division, an organization established nearly 20 years ago to assist individual farmers and the agricultural industry. Before that, he cultivated olives in Kibbutz Revivim in the southern Negev, where he lives and where saltwater aquifers helped produce 200 tons of award-winning olive oil each year. “To them, buying olive oil in the supermarket is a joke, they don’t do that. They buy it from a farmer they know, because they all want local olives.”
Yogev is Israel’s number-one olive oil cheerleader, a one-man team who, having left his olive trees to his successors, helped create the Olive Oil division as Israeli farmers and cooperatives began growing olives.
As Israeli olive oil producers have increased, the division created an olive oil quality sticker — a golden drop-shaped sign indicating that the olive oil is pressed from olives grown in Israel, with strict control throughout the process.
Yogev spends several days a week traveling around the country, checking in on the nearly 200 olive oil growers and presses and spreading the gospel of local EVOO (extra virgin olive oil).
Between visits, Regev tells stories. He recalls his first Revivim olive harvest, when he was sent to a press in Wadi Ara, the “triangle” in Israel’s north populated mainly by Arabs.
“The press owner looked at our olives and said, ‘These are for eating, there’s not enough oil in them,'” said Regev. “They were Barnea olives and I said, ‘What? I’ve been waiting three years for this moment.'”
He was sent to another olive oil press, where everyone was dipping pita into newly pressed olive oil. As Regev dipped into the oil pressed from other peoples’ olives, he tasted a far more bitter flavor than he had anticipated (green, first-fruit olives emit a bitter flavor that later softens).
“Everyone has their twist on things,” said Regev.
Now, all these years later, locally pressed olive oil has become something of a joint industry for Jews and Arabs, many of whom cooperate and often press their olives in a neighbor’s press.
In Moshav Ram-On south of the Jezreel Valley, the Arazi siblings, Eitan, Neta, Tamir and Lior, are examples of that olive-based coexistence.
The siblings, who grew up in the farming community with parents who raised everything from grapes to chickens, settled their own families in Ram-On, although only two work in agriculture.
The eldest brother, Eitan Arazi, a pilot, planted Souri olive trees years ago and the four siblings slowly put together a press that is now used by neighboring farmers.
“Our motto is that we’re a food factory and you always have to work with good machinery,” said Tamir Arazi, over a bowl of labane cheese sprinkled liberally with fresh olive oil.
The Arazis’ clients range from families with 100 to 200 kilos (220 to 440 pounds) of olives each year to local kibbutzim with a couple of tons each season, and they trust the Arazis to keep everyone’s olives separate and to squeeze out as much oil as possible.
“They trust us,” he said. “The olive oil here comes out clean.”
Over in the Beit She’an Valley, Assi is a cooperative olive oil press that works with all the local farmers from the nearby kibbutzim and moshavim, cultivating some 3,500 dunams (about 865 acres) of olive trees. They’ve also patented a gluten-free flour made from olive husks.
But that’s just a byproduct of their larger business, as the olive oil press is set up to press olives 24 hours a day, six days a week, during the height of the olive oil season.
The season is short — about two to two and a half months — and intense, as freshly picked olives can’t sit for too long before being pressed without the flavor of the oil being affected.
“They pick the olives and get here an hour or so later,” said Orian Polak, who handles marketing for the cooperative. “A month later, you’re tired but you’re still into it.”
Assi is essentially a kibbutz brand belonging to all the local farming cooperatives. It presses, bottles and sells seven types of olive oil with differing aromas and heat, some for salad dressings, other for cooking.
Yet even Assi has a hard time accessing the main supermarkets, where most of the olive oils sold are imports or blends.
It’s cheaper for Israeli supermarkets to sell imported brands from Europe, where the industry is heavily subsidized, said Yogev.
“Israeli farmers can’t profit from their olive oil — they don’t have enough government support,” he said. “If Israelis want real olive oil, they have to come to the presses or order on Facebook,” referring to small, local presses, many of which handle orders through Facebook Messenger.
A few Israeli brands can be found in some supermarket chains, and specialty stores often stock some local olive oils. The upcoming fair is part of the division’s marketing effort to spread the gospel about local olive oil.
As for the producers, they can easily name several reasons for keeping the olive oil tradition going. It’s pure, local and often familial.
Nassar and Yunes Darawsha are two brothers, from Iksal, a small Arab village close to Nazareth, who believe in olive oil and its continuity.
Their father, a building contractor, built the family olive oil press 20 years ago, for their family’s 70 dunams (about 17 acres) of olives.
Yunes, 39, a mechanical engineer by training, took a greater interest at first, urging his father to invest in the business with better equipment than what he had purchased used from a neighbor.
Nasser, a year older but working in Netanya as a software engineer, initially took only a cursory interest during harvest time.
“I was always annoyed with him for not paying more attention to it,” said Yunes.
About seven years ago, Nasser married and started a family, and finally joined with Yunes in writing a business plan together for their father and convincing him to invest and expand the olive oil press.
They created two production lines, one for smaller family harvests and another for larger farms that is also fully kosher, supervised by a representative of the local rabbinate.
They’re heavily involved in the Olive Oil Board, hosting meetings for local olive oil producers on their spacious factory floor and offering support to small and large farmers, Jewish and Arab alike.
The Darawshas said they’d like to see the younger generation show more of an interest in growing olives.
Yunes Darawsha believes there won’t be much farming done by his own children, who have little desire to pick olives with him and will probably end up buying their olive oil rather than doing it themselves.
“My wife doesn’t know how to pickle olives,” he said.
As part of their business, the Darawsha brothers want to help their neighbors nurse their olive tree orchards back to health and produce their own harvests.
“We’ll take care of people’s land for them if they don’t want to. It will grow, and that’ll bring other people to do the same,” said Yunes Darawsha.
“We hope it’ll catch on,” said Nasser Darawsha. “Ultimately, there’s really nothing like your own olives.”
Olive Oil Fair, March 17, Ramat Hanadiv, free entry, 10 to 2 p.m.
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