The olive oil and tapenade we sell during Advent each year are from the Canaan Farm Co-operative of Burqin village in the northern West Bank. Just before the olive harvest began during early October, the St. Mark’s pilgrimage group visited this fascinating and efficient co-operative, near Jenin, Palestine. The co-op began in 2005 with 14 farmers, but now has 1700 farmers and contracts with other oil presses in the region so they can accommodate this vast increase in participation. The rapid growth is because the co-op guarantees a minimum price for good quality olives even when the market price was significantly depressed during the recession. The co-op price fluctuates with the market and is always at least a few shekels above market price. The co-op members are assured of a fair price for good olives.
The current 2013 holiday issue of Saveur magazine has an article that tells about this co-opand the wonderful products they now export to a number of countries. Further information about the founding of the co-op was in Bloomberg news at this link http://bloom.bg/hLrY8m
An olive contains about 28% oil, 22% water, and 50% solids. After oil is extracted, the solid pellets which remain are used in the fields as fertilizer. The farmers practice age-old sustainable methods of terracing olive groves to capture rain water and prevent erosion and loss of top soil. Preserving rain water is important. Israeli authorities will not give Palestinian farmers permits to dig wells or to build reservoirs to hold rain water. Anything built without a permit can be shut down or destroyed by Israeli authorities.
Olive trees can live a thousand years and become stronger and more productive with good care, so that they are prized and passed down from one generation of a family to the next.
The olive trade represents 40% of all Palestinian agricultural trade. We were told that the West Bank has approximately 7.6 million olive trees, but 2.1 million of those trees are not accessible because of the Israeli construction of the Separation Wall, that is almost 28% of the olive trees in the West Bank.
We began in the press room where cold pressed olive oil is extracted by a high tech process that never exceeds 28 degree Celsius (82 degrees Fahrenheit). The room was immaculate.
The walls were covered with handsome patterned tiles surrounding Arabic sayings on tile reminding workers to work safely and cleanly.
To ensure highest quality, farmers only bring very fresh picked, intact olives that have no cuts and have not been stepped on. A single farm’s olives are fed into a large washing tank. After washing, the olives are directed into tanks to be cut and sliced in a nitrogen atmosphere that excludes oxygen which would lower quality.
Then the mass is pressed at a controlled temperature to extract cold pressed oil. After this extraction process, modern scientific lab tests the olive oil to verify low levels of acidity and oxygenation and good flavor to determine its grade. Extra virgin olive oil has acidity of less than 0.8 g per 100 g. Extra virgin oil is stored in large underground vats, again topped with nitrogen gas to protect it from oxygen. Canaan draws and bottles extra virgin oil in response to orders, so the oil is always supplied as freshly bottled. They also bottle olive oil infused with garlic, with pepper, with chili and with thyme.
The Canaan Co-op contributes to the farm community beyond paying a fair price for agricultural products. Each year they distribute the “virgin premium” which is funding invested in the community. They support Trees for Life and over a period of 7 years have planted 80,000 olive trees. Ten scholarships are provided to local universities for members of farmer families who lack education. They have a micro-loan program for women. They also support a program to encourage the recycling used oil for fuel. The co-op is organized as a Palestine Fair Trade group and all their products are certified Fair Trade.
Most products are also organic. A contract has been developed with Whole Foods grocery chain in the US to sell products including their tapenade. The bulk of their production is sold in Europe and the US to individuals and groups eager for Fair Trade products and willing to pay the price differential to obtain them. They also supply lower grade virgin olive oil to the manufacturer of Dr. Bronner’s liquid soap.
The co-op also supports women’s co-ops which prepare olive oil soap, herbal mixtures such as za’atar, Palestinian couscous and spreads such as tapenade. The co-op has also begun marketing local almonds. They deep freeze nuts and couscous to -27 degrees Centigrade, as a non-chemical organic means of fumigation. They now supply fair trade almonds to Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. Watch for almonds in Ben and Jerry’s ice cream when you next indulge and look for Canaan tapenade on the shelves of Whole Foods.
As we begin the Advent sale at St. Mark’s Church, look carefully at the true extra virgin olive oil from the Canaan Farm Co-operative. The Pilgrimage group will remember the farm families who raised these olives and benefit in so many ways from the Co-op sales stays and the outward ripples of good deeds from this co-operative. Many of these farm families hosted members of our pilgrimage in their homes. So when you buy Co-op products as gifts for others or to enjoy yourself, your act will strengthen the bonds of goodwill between St. Mark’s and these farm families.