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Insight into Tunisian Olive Oil Production, part 1

April 2, 2010

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!

Olives and Prickly Pear Cactus in central Tunisia. Photo credit: Tagami

Some higher density planting. Photo credit: Tagami

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.

Six veteran olive harvesters stand shyly near our group. Photo credit: Tagami

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.

Insight into Tunisian Olive Oil Production, part 2

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. Al Hamman permalink
    April 2, 2010 2:34 PM

    Liz, This is wonderful! I’ve placed a link on First Press and will write a special post to direct readers to your blog to get the details of the trade mission trip.

  2. Richard G. permalink
    April 2, 2010 11:05 PM

    Hi Liz. Thanks for the informative and entertaining run-down of your study tour to Tunisia. The pics were absolutely fabulous too. It looked like a very interesting place with friendly hard working people. Certainly worth a visit.

    Despite being a strong supporter of a competitor country, I’m genuinely pleased that the Tunisians are trying hard to market their oils as Tunisian rather than letting the Italians sell it as their own. Maybe some of this is the result of the long overdue change in EU food labelling laws that actually demand some semblance of transparency and truthfulness as to where the food is actually made (rather than where it was just packed). But whatever the reason, you would think that the greater amount of value adding that the current strategy will provide must be good for Tunisia. It may even help solve their labour shortage via increased wages.
    Cheerio from Oz
    Richard Gawel

  3. April 3, 2010 4:07 AM

    G’day, Richard! I’m honored to have you as a reader as I very much value your experience and insights when it comes to olives and olive oil. One of the most rewarding things for me was to be able to taste new monocultivars in situ and begin to extrapolate what that might mean to marketing EVOO in general.

    Arbequina may be “paying the rent” for now, however I believe there will be a demand for a wider variety of experiences with EVOO in the future — just as consumers have become ever more educated and eager to try a wider variety of wine, chocolate, and coffee over the past few decades. There is another aspect about visiting these old groves which appeals, too, and that is our responsibility to support a greater diversity in plant and animal life. I was reading something today from Giorgio Bartolini from the Istituto per la Valorizzazione del Legno e delle Specie Arboree in Florence, which I believe deserves repeating here in full:

    “Olive (Olea europaea L.) is the most extensively cultivated fruit crop in the world (FAO, 2004). Its cultivation area has tripled in the past 44 years, passing from 2.6 to 8.5 million of hectares. This emerging appeal is mainly due to the recognized nutritional value of its products combined to its tolerance to drought, salinity etc. Despite this large expansion, intra-specific diversity of olive is threatened by several factors including the abandonment of marginal soils, biotic and abiotic stresses, urbanisation, replacement of old groves with other species and substitution of rustic cultivars with more productive ones. For purposes of conservation and sustainable utilization, it is therefore very important to clearly identify true existing cultivars, their characteristics and the collections in which they are preserved.”

    It is my hope that our efforts in California, Australia, Tunisia and the olive growing regions of Europe that we keep the rich diversity of olea europaea L. alive. Cheers, Richard! See you on line. -T

  4. Arnold A. permalink
    April 5, 2010 12:49 PM

    Hi Liz,

    Great updates from Tunisia….excellent photos and travelogue….about a place I first learned of in Carol Drinkwater’s The Olive Route. The follow on book, The Olive Tree covers the Western Mediterranean as she continued her search for the history of the Olive. Not enough exposure in the U.S. yet, but excellent reading.

    I hope to meet you at a UC Davis event in the future.

    Regards,

    Arnold

  5. Mahdi permalink
    May 20, 2010 12:32 AM

    Great pics Liz,
    lookin’ forward to c u again between us 😉
    regards

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  1. Photo of the Day: Olive Grove in Tunisia - Travel Freak

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