Thursday, 9 December 2010

All All In

The lorry came this morning and took the last of the olives to the mill.  The biggest harvest since the early sixties when the land was abandoned by the people who worked  it.  Every hillside is now patched with revived olive groves from here to Florence.  All the woods are trimmed, even open fields are ploughed ready for sowing. 

Vineyards have made  less of a comeback, partly because of the limitations placed by needing licences for them so reinstatement is not so easy:  the licences are auctioned,  and   bought up  by the 'names'  for lots of money; partly because wine-growing is so skilled and labour-intensive that prices haven't pulled all the abandoned, marginal-land vineyards back into production.  Producing for the local co-operative is not attractive because generic wine prices are so low, though buying from the local co-operative is so attractive for just that reason.

It's not going to be my generation that brings back the vineyards everywhere, as the olives have come back, but the next. Once the co-ops really get themselves organised like the other international wine producers have then Chianti will knock spots off lots of wines currently occupying the shops.  At the moment the Australian winemakers are working with the big name Chianti producers of expensive wines but their expertise, and the organisation and marketing expertise, is trickling down to the co-ops;  then the countryside will take the final step to looking as it should.

It is the fashion to denounce the EU's agricultural funding but in providing a proper career structure, formal training and qualification, with a pension at the end,  and  a means to furnish the people who work the land with access to the land while compensating its former owners, the policy has come good in the end.  It has been a motor for redistribution and increased equality of access to resources,  the preservation of a range of skills, and all that denounced funding is now enabling the meeting of a fast-growing demand for produce untainted by doubtful mass-farming methods.  Not in the UK unfortunately; there the money just went to the large landowners and, to a lesser extent, the medium ones.  But here it wasn't used like that, it went to  owners, farmers and land workers who are very small indeed.  And it has saved the day which has now come;  and the countryside, as well as yielding a less measurable but equally valuable social cohesion and identity of interest across time, and class, and place.

The mill offered to buy all the oil, as I mentioned, but it's selling quite briskly to people in the village - they say it tastes as oil did when they were small -  so I'll take delivery secure that Leo will be right when he warns that after their big effort this year the trees will rest next, and produce far less in 2011.  He knows the trees one by one, he prunes them, he ploughs them, he adjusts the natural fertilisers they're given now and then.  So we'll still have something to sell when the realisation dawns that there's going to be an oil shortage and high prices next year.  Insider information always helps with pricing and stocking.


Odin's Raven said...

What has happened to change the economics of olive growing? Years ago I heard that olives were left to rot because it was not worth the cost of the labour to collect them.
Is there a regular cycle in olive yields?

hatfield girl said...

Wage costs have become relatively low as they are unchanged in the last 6 years.
Cumulative care for the groves over the same period - ploughing, strimming, fertilising, pruning, replanting - is raising harvests
while these costs are fixed. The increase in harvest only raises the gathering and milling costs.
Modern oil mills are efficient, though less romantic. Do not buy stone-milled oil, it's murky, acid, and tastes less good than modern-milled oil.
While oil prices have not increased noticeably there is an increase in demand.
There is a change in tastes. (When Mr HG first went to England he was astonished that olive oil was bought at the chemists) and
marketing oil is getting more and more sophisticated, as it has for wine. People care what their oil tastes like and a lot of harm can be done by bad oil.
Tuscan olive oil is distinctive and considered one of the finest. People from all over the world pay more for it, and they are right.
Do you buy oil Raven? Did your parents?
There is a cycle: olives grow on new growth so a good harvest is followed by hard pruning and a smaller yield the next year. (I'm told).

Odin's Raven said...

No, I don't buy olive oil. I think my mother used lard for frying. I use Tesco's vegetable or nut oil as it is cheaper than olive oil or butter. I can't see that flavour means much unless people are drinking the stuff. Marketing can persuade people to buy anything of course, but I hadn't seen oil as competing with wine.

I know that olive oil and wine were the classical Mediterranean produce, but don't suppose there is any longer much demand for oil to light clay lamps, or for athletes to grease themselves. Of course, that situation may change, if we get the really harsh winter that some are predicting, and the power stations can't cope with demand!

Since everywhere in the Greek and Roman Mediterranean grew the same two products, with only a little marketing differentiation, I've never understood how they could make enough money from exports to pay for things like temples, unless like Athens they had a silver mine and an empire of tributaries.

I assume that the acreage of olive orchards doesn't vary rapidly as it must take time and money to grow new trees and take land in or out of other use, although presumably, not all the harvest from productive trees might be gathered if there was a glut. Hence I suppose there may not be a 'hog cycle' where farmers produce more when prices are high, so prices fall, so less is produced, so prices rise etc. It's still a bit of a mystery to me.