From grove to market: Palestinian olive harvest in Farkha

baker harvesting olives

The annual olive harvest is one of the most important events of the year for Palestinian farmers. It brings families and communities together and provides an income for around 100,000 people. 

Olive farmers in the West Bank face enormous challenges. Their access to land, water and markets is often limited by Israeli settlements, checkpoints and restrictions. Yet despite these challenges, olive farming has huge economic potential. Oxfam and local partners run the From Grove to Market program - helping Palestinian farmers improve the quality and quantity of their oil and reach local and international markets.

We spent a day harvesting olives with Baker, Amina and their family in the small village of Farkha. Baker is a founding member of the Farkha Cooperative, which now produces organic olive oil for sale in the Gulf.

The day starts early. Amina wakes up at 4am to bake fresh bread, and then prepare food for the busy day ahead. She makes homemade labneh with zaatar (Arabic yoghurt with thyme), tomatoes, cucumbers, pickled olives, tomatoes and eggs, and packs it up to take with them to the fields. "The olive tree benefits us in so many ways. It helps us eat, and it symbolizes our culture and heritage," she says.

By 7am, the family packs up and heads out to the fields, loading up the mule with bags of food and bottles of water. "We freeze the water overnight so that it stays cold to drink all day," says Amina. Baker brings his portable radio so they can listen to the local news and music while they work.

mohammed olive harvest

22 year-old Mohammed, the youngest of six sons and two daughters, heads to the fields to start the day's work. "We wait all year for the harvest season and all the family participates," says Baker. "We consider the harvest season as a celebration. The organic olive oil we produce brings enough income to cover the expenses of the family." 

baker palestinian olive harvest

"We have benefited greatly from the From Grove to Market program," says Baker. "It has encouraged our cooperative to develop organic farming methods, which has helped us produce high quality oil that can be sold and compete in international markets. The training has developed our knowledge about olive trees and production. It trained us on the pruning process throughout the year, which has made our trees bear more fruit on a steady basis, instead of just one-off seasons." 

The younger you are, the higher up you have to climb the trees. Baker, Amina and the older members of the family pick from the lower branches, while their sons climb to pick the olives at the top.

omar olive tree harvest

Omar, 27, is normally a blacksmith in the village - and a part-time wedding DJ – but during the harvest he joins his family in the fields. "I raised my sons and daughters since they were young to love the olive tree because it benefits us and symbolizes hope for us," says Amina.

family eating palestinian olive harvest

Picking olives is hard work, so by midday it's time to eat the food that Amina prepared. Amina and Mohammed set the food out while Baker makes a small fire to brew tea.  

Baker and his sons drop the olives and branches they pick onto a plastic sheet - among the equipment provided by From Grove to Market. Amina goes through the branches, picking any remaining olives. Once they are all removed, the branches are dried and used for firewood for cooking and heating back at home. "We use the wood to heat ourselves in winter," she says.

Ghassan, a relative from the central West Bank town of Salfit, joins the family to help pick the olives. The harvest is the busiest time of the year for olive farmers, so they often take on extra labor - either relatives or paid casual laborers. For his work, Ghassan receives a share of the oil they produce, which he takes home to his family.

amina picking dry olives

While Baker and his sons pick olives from the trees, Amina picks dry olives that have dropped to the ground early. These are kept aside in buckets so as not to mix them with the fresh ones from the trees - they are not high enough quality for olive oil, so they are pressed separately to make other olive oil products such as soap. 

The olives are put into sacks and taken home. The family's mule can only carry three sacks at a time, so when those are filled Omar heads home.  Many farmers use plastic bags, but From Grove to Market has encouraged farmers to use cloth sacks to maintain a higher quality and meet international organic certification requirements. 

Back at the house, Omar sorts the olives from the leaves and repacks them. Nothing goes to waste - the leaves are collected later and used to make compost.

omar puts olive into crates

The olives are taken to the cooperative's office and weighed. They are put into crates that can be loaded into trucks. The cooperative then takes them to an olive press in the nearby town of Tubas, where they are pressed and turned into high quality olive oil. The From Grove to Market program helps cooperatives across the West Bank to access new local and international markets.

Working together in a cooperative helps the farmers get better prices for their product, says Baker. "Sadly, years ago we produced a lot of olive oil but we had a problem marketing it. We had to sell the oil for half of what it cost to produce.  So we formed a cooperative and set about getting international certification for organic olive oil. We stopped using chemicals to spray the trees. Now it is much higher quality."

All photos: Oxfam