Insight into Tunisian Olive Oil Production, part 1
It’s Tuesday afternoon. Day Two. Part Two. An alert for my non-industry readers: this post will be dense with olive talk.
After a morning tour of cultural and spiritual sites in the holy city of Kairouan, we enjoyed a quick lunch and two hour bus ride to central Tunisia to meet with a producer who grows and mills many interesting olive cultivars. As we learned on the first day, 60% of production in this country is Chemlali and 35% Chetoui, so what about the other 5%? This small percentage is made up of 20 other cultivars, seemingly unique to Tunisia, as well as several European varietals, which we also grow in California.
The first thing that was interesting to me was the density of planting. This grower maintained almost 800 hectares of trees (about 1,900 acres) and had 33,780 trees. If I’m thinking about this the right way, this means that there were on average 18 trees per acre — very low density compared with the old world European standard of 100-150 trees per acre. We saw many blocks of trees on our bus ride through the country side, so this figure seemed incorrect to me as there were very mature trees, which were set a fairly standard distance apart; I can only reckon that there are mountain and desert lands within this total hectare figure which is throwing off the average. In fact, the owner mentioned that he placed his lower rainfall area trees much further apart, so perhaps there were groves further south which looked differently than what was before us. In addition to the 800 hectares of established olive groves he also had another 250 hectares (about 618 acres) of new planting with 110,400 trees, or 180 per acre. Here’s an interesting footnote: Tunisia has a Mexican transplant that is used extensively as fencing in central Tunisia: Prickly Pear Cactus!
Besides chronic water shortages, one of the big issues facing Tunisian farmers is labor. Harvest season is tough because teenagers don’t want to do the work of their parents, so the Tunisian military has established a service whereby a certain number of men are assigned to get the harvest brought in and assure this important agricultural crop — 66% of which is exported. Where there are local workers, they are paid by the basket. During the discussion period, it was reckoned that they earned about 2 dinars per 20 kg basket, or about $1.50 for every 44 pounds that were picked. Because the process is completed without mechanical means, the harvest period on this ranch was longer than we see in California or in European farms which use tree shakers (or modified over-the-row grape harvesters). Here, the harvest lasts from October – February.
There was protracted discussion about organic farming by the German journalists, and during the discussion we learned that this grower has made a commitment to planting an additional 100 hectares (247 acres) organic. They are using compost and finished organic fertilizers, and using sheep for clearing weeds instead of using Monsanto products. They have also made a €100,000 ($135,000) investment in a method of recycling waste water from milling. That’s enough for now — in my next post I’ll tell you about the olives themselves, and a little bit about the milling operation.