Olive harvesting can be a pretty tiring experience but also has many enjoyable moments. The whole family will harvest the olives together and it’s a great time for joking, chatting and enjoying each other’s company. The serious farmer will start harvesting at 6am. Where I am, the father starts around 6 on weekends and the rest of the family joins in around 8 or 9 am. During the week he works in school until mid day, and then goes out to the field. Exams are scheduled before and after the olive season specifically so kids can spend more time in the fields, but sometimes homework keeps the high school and university students at home.
Farmers seem to buy small-ish plots of land here and there, rather than having all their trees in one place. In a week and a half of harvesting, I’ve been to 3 or 4 different parcels of land and there are a few more to go.
Usually one or two people climb up the tree and/or a ladder and start removing olives there. Everyone else picks the olives from branches closest to the ground. The olive tree is pruned to prevent the trees from growing too tall. The other day we harvested from one that was quite tall. I was told that they were continually trying to make this tree grow out, rather than up, “but it just didn’t listen.” Apparently that particular tree has seen some injuries due to its large height.
You move from tree to tree all day, taking frequent breaks for water, rest, food and more. If you are out all day, you will probably bring a sizable picnic. Sometimes, one person stays home to cook in the morning and then joins the rest of the family on the slopes with a hot lunch. As the sun is going down, you wrap everything up and go home and completely relax. Most of the tools get left in the field and only the picnic supplies and the olives are brought back up. (Remember, the town is at the top of the hill and the olive groves are below, so carrying chicken-feed-bags of olives up a steep rocky hill is no easy feat.) Some families use a donkey (h’mar), but this family got rid of theirs because the braying is simply unbearable. It’s really the most horrible sound you will ever hear.
We carry the bags towards a rocky, sandy, steep and unpaved road, where we parked the car. Frequently the car has major trouble getting back up. Everyone but the driver walks uphill to the paved road (so as not to weigh down the car) and only gets in once the car has cleared the hill. It is quite scary to see the kids trying to throw large stones under the wheels so the car wont slide backwards. The villagers would like to have the road paved but there is no money for it.
At the end of a full day this season, we’ve had about 4 bags (the size of potato sacks) of olives. This obviously depends on how big your family is and therefore how many hands on deck. Where I am, three of the sons live abroad, two work in Ramallah, and one is too young to really help. That leaves them with me, and a son and daughter who are both in the thick of their studies, so their help is part-time. Good thing this is a slow year for olives. Next year will be a bigger harvest, and I have been told that in such times, a single tree can fill two bags and you can come home with 12 or more bags. I’ll have to come back next year to find out…