An irregular, irreverent, post-modern account of the surreal, the ordinary, and the bizarre happenings on and around the Felia lavender farm in Crete

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Real Olive Farm - a pre-solstice update

Now that the first of the drupes, and there are a lot of drupes, are beginning to turn purple (usually at the sharp end first) and the flesh is nice and plump it is time for a pre-solstice update.

Olive farming is a strangely inactive job, especially the way we do it. Since we are organic we do not apply herbicides or pesticides (and thereby hangs another tale) and since we follow Fukuoka we do not apply fertilisers or plough beneath the trees. Nor do we irrigate the trees.  What then, you might reasonably ask, do you do? Well there's the pruning. And there's the cleaning under the trees in preparation for harvest, after all nobody wants to rip expensive olive nets on unruly brambles and suckers. And then there's the actual picking. And I guess the rest is about watching and waiting. Right now we are waiting. We cleaned under the trees by hand  in October and since then the oxalis has been carpeting the grove and keeping almost everything else at bay. 

If you follow the lavender way you will know that we had a very odd summer this last year with high humidity and no heatwaves and that those conditions produced a marked downturn in essential oil yield from the lavender. The rains started early this autumn and we have had plenty of rainfall since to flesh up the olives but we are currently waiting for a really cold snap to turn that water into oil and so far there is no sign of that. We had hoped to harvest before Xmas this year (and many of the groves around us have been harvested already - hearsay evidence is that yields are very low) but we are now looking toward January and the halcyon days for harvest.  But if we don't get the cold then we will wait. It is a balancing act - the later we leave it the higher the eventual acidity of the oil but we figure we can wait until early March and still come in under 0.5.

Fingers are crossed and we are holding our nerve, we'll let you know how it goes on.

Another Tale

When we applied to DIO for organic certification we thought there would be no change to our practices but they took particular interest in how we controlled olive fruit fly. When we originally moved on-site the local council was in the habit of coming around the valley and into the olive groves and spraying all of the olives spasmodically 3 or 4 times a year. We, not being locals, had no idea what they sprayed with and neither, it turned out, did any of the local olive farmers - "chemicals" they opined. Wanting to be organic we wanted to know more and so we went to see the head of agriculture for the prefecture to find out. Evanthia was a nice lady and efficient but she poo poohed our concerns about what the local council sprayed on the trees - "It's perfectly safe. It just kills the fruit fly." she reassured us and eventually she managed to produce a pharmaceutical label from said standard, safe, treatment. The information on the label was remarkably sparse but the trade name was large and proudly displayed. After a long discussion and a lot of Evanthia shaking her head we agreed to put up DO NOT SPRAY signs, to inform the local council that we we wanted nothing to do with the spraying regime and to keep all access gates to the grove locked. She promised to send some men around to advise us on alternative fruit fly control procedures within the month or at least before March (this was December) and we in turn promised to let her know what we discovered about "the chemicals".

In those days we were the only people we knew who were regular internet users and so our researches were pretty rigorous and much more objective than anything  that the locals had access to. Not wishing to have any large american pharmaceutical company litigating against us I shall omit any detail that might identify either the chemical or the manufacturer but what we discovered was genuinely horrific: said standard, safe, treatment chemical was an organophosphate - not any old organophosphate but one which had been generally banned in the US in 1968 when it was implicated in wide scale, long term, central nervous system poisoning and damage among users. It had been withdrawn from general sale in the US, the UK and most of Europe shortly thereafter although it was still available for very specialized use in the US but under some very controlled circumstances - full body suits, breathing equipment and full clearance of the areas to be sprayed (our local council sprayed it from the back of a tractor and the operatives wore only shorts and t-shirts). When we looked further into it it transpired that the company in question was still selling the stuff widely in Greece (the only European country where it was available), Africa and the Middle East.

We passed the information on to Evanthia and eventually her men turned up at the farm.  They brought with them a selection of beautiful open ended glass jars and a big bag of ammonium sulphate. For our population of trees, they told us, we would need 3 of these jars placed here here and here (they identified the appropriate trees for us and showed us where within the tree, out of the direct sun and yet low in the crown, to hang them)and filled with an ammonium sulphate solution before the olive flowers set. We should monitor the jars for evaporation and crystallization and keep them re-filled until the onset of the rains.

And so we had carried on ever since: repelling all spraying rigs and persevering with the jars so imagine how surprised we were when DIO informed us that ammonium sulphate was not cleared for use on organic farms! It's not as if we were spraying it around, we were using it in a trap and it never came into contact with the soil or the trees or the fruit save perhaps by evaporation. What then, we asked, should we use against the fruit fly? Surprise surprise we were given the OK for the use of gamma or delta pyrethroids. Well, forewarned is forearmed and once bitten twice shy, so I did the research and guess what?  These pyrethroids are "generally harmless to human beings"  but  "toxic to fish" and  "toxic to most beneficial insects such as bees and dragonflies" - heigh ho! " We are doing without until we can find something less hazardous to our ecosphere and bearing the risk of fruit fly depradations (doesn't look too bad so far).