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From Golan Heights, Olive Farmer Sees New Markets for His Skincare Line

Avner Talmon harvests the fruit of 23,000 olive trees for organic olive oil and an array of natural cosmetics ranging from facial wash to foot cream.

Avner Talmon
Oct. 28, 2016
By Larry Luxner
Avner Talmon

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QATZRIN, Israel — Barely 25 km from Israel’s fron­tier with Syria — a coun­try whose very name today evokes suf­fer­ing and blood­shed — busi­ness­man Avner Tal­mon maneu­vers his Polaris Ranger 4x4 along a dirt road over­look­ing the Golan Heights.

Despite the civil war rag­ing on the other side of this heav­ily for­ti­fied bor­der, the view from our van­tage point 700 meters above sea level couldn’t be more peace­ful; about the most dan­ger­ous things in our imme­di­ate vicin­ity are hair­pin turns, occa­sional snakes and an unre­lent­ing sun.

Here, on 60 hectares of hard­scrab­ble land whose his­tory dates back to long before the birth of Jesus, Talmon’s com­pany, Olea Essence Ltd., har­vests the fruit of 23,000 olive trees into organic olive oil and an array of nat­ural cos­met­ics rang­ing from facial wash to foot cream. About half that land is Talmon’s; the rest belong to nearby Jew­ish and Ara­bic-speak­ing Druze farm­ers.

Because we are from Israel, we have lots of know-how about olives that comes from thou­sands of years of tra­di­tion,” he says. Olives are in our blood, in our DNA.”

How Tal­mon, 62, came to be an expert on mak­ing beauty prod­ucts from olive oil is a story in itself — a tale this reporter heard ear­lier this month over a pita-and-hum­mus lunch at the Olea Essence visitor’s cen­ter, located three hours’ drive north­east of Tel Aviv, Israel’s com­mer­cial and cul­tural cap­i­tal.

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We came to the Golan 19 years ago from Tel Aviv,” said Tal­mon, an archae­ol­o­gist by train­ing. At the time, my kids were 16, 14 and 10. I wanted to give my kids their child­hood back. My daugh­ter liked rid­ing horses. Even­tu­ally she ended up as Israel’s horse­back rid­ing cham­pion.”

One day, the fam­ily drove up to Moshav Ramot — whose Hebrew name has noth­ing to with the fact that this lonely horse ranch is quite remote — and while the oth­ers were rid­ing, Tal­mon spot­ted a neglected house look­ing out over breath­tak­ing moun­tain scenery. On a whim, he bought it and then sur­prised his wife with the news.

The house came with 20 acres of land that had noth­ing on it, so I decided to plant my own olives,” he recalled. I was kind of drawn into it.”

To be frank, Israel — a world leader in dia­monds, com­puter soft­ware, weaponry and med­ical devices — rep­re­sents barely a blip on the world olive oil mar­ket. Its annual pro­duc­tion of 5,000 met­ric tons pales in com­par­i­son to the 1.38 mil­lion tons pro­duced by Spain, the 470,000 tons pro­duced by Italy or the 320,000 tons pro­duced by Greece in 2015 – 16, accord­ing to fig­ures just released by the Inter­na­tional Olive Coun­cil.

Yet only a tiny frac­tion of that pro­duc­tion is unfil­tered.

You have two to three mil­lion tons of olive oil sold annu­ally around the world,” he said. If 100,000 tons of that is not fil­tered, then my name is not Avner.”
Tal­mon insists that U.S. and Euro­pean con­sumers have been hood­winked into buy­ing only olive oil that is trans­par­ent.

Look what you have in the States. The EPA is killing the olives, because they are right­fully pro­tect­ing the water, which is scarce in Cal­i­for­nia. They don’t let the olive oil indus­try con­t­a­m­i­nate the soil. But the con­t­a­m­i­na­tion is not poi­son; most of the olive’s antiox­i­dants are in the solids, which seep down into the water table and don’t dis­solve.”

But Tal­mon arrived at his con­clu­sions quite lit­er­ally by acci­dent.

When you bring in 100 kilos of olives to the mill, you add 20 kilos of water and extract 20 kilos of olive oil. So 100 kilos are left as con­t­a­m­i­nated residue,” he said. I dis­cov­ered all this coin­ci­den­tally by falling into a pile of it. The hose exploded and cov­ered me with this mud. I was afraid, because I knew it’s not good stuff. Then my guys washed me off, and I saw my skin. It was way bet­ter than before.”

The entre­pre­neur imme­di­ately hired a chemist to inves­ti­gate the spe­cific prop­er­ties of olive oil and how they could com­mer­cial­ize his dis­cov­ery. He even­tu­ally wrote a patent on turn­ing that residue into vine­gar by fer­ment­ing it.

I’m the only one in the world who has that tech­nol­ogy,” he insisted.

Talmon’s com­pany head­quar­ters are in Qatzrin, a town of 4,000 that serves as the Golan’s admin­is­tra­tive cap­i­tal. He’s located across the street from a strip shop­ping mall and down the road from ancient Qatzrin and the remains of four olive presses.

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Besides this loca­tion, Olea Essence has three other out­lets in the north: Ein Gev, Ginos­sar and Yardenit — all pop­u­lar des­ti­na­tions for Jew­ish tourists as well as evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tians. The shops get a com­bined 100,000 vis­i­tors a year, mainly Amer­i­cans and Euro­peans who arrive by the bus­load, view a five-minute video, take a tour of the facil­i­ties, enjoy lunch and watch a demon­stra­tion of how to use the company’s olive oil-based cos­met­ics, all of which are on sale at the gift shop.

There’s also a shop at Qum­ran, on the shores of the Dead Sea, as well as Talmon’s flag­ship bou­tique at 17 Ben Yehuda Street in Tel Aviv.

Olea Essence gift shop in Qatzrin
(Photo by Larry Luxner)

The next one will be in New York’s West Vil­lage, and then Tokyo. I’m nego­ti­at­ing dif­fer­ent fran­chises,” he said with­out elab­o­rat­ing.

Despite Israel’s prox­im­ity to Europe, the EU is not an attrac­tive mar­ket for Olea Essence — for both polit­i­cal and eco­nomic rea­sons. The EU slaps a €1.20 duty on every kilo of olive oil imported from Israel; this, says Tal­mon, is aimed at pro­tect­ing Span­ish, Ital­ian, Greek and Por­tuguese olive farm­ers.

Most Israeli prod­ucts don’t pay EU taxes, but olive oil is one of the few prod­ucts that Euro­peans are pro­tect­ing,” he said. The Euro­peans also have all kinds of reg­u­la­tions that are meant to keep you away. It’s all one big super-cap­i­tal­ist mar­ket, keep­ing away com­pe­ti­tion, but even­tu­ally that pre­vents them from excelling.”

The other rea­son is polit­i­cal. In Novem­ber 2015, Brus­sels enacted a new set of guide­lines requir­ing all EU-bound exports — includ­ing wine, dates, poul­try and olive oil — orig­i­nat­ing in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights to carry the words Israeli Set­tle­ment” in addi­tion to the Made in Israel” label.

These days, the two-thirds of the Golan Heights that Israel cap­tured from Syria dur­ing the Six-Day War of 1967 and offi­cially annexed in 1981 bears lit­tle resem­blance to the coun­try that once ruled it. About 40,000 Jews and Ara­bic-speak­ing Druze inhabit the 580-square-mile enclave known for agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tion, winer­ies, tourist attrac­tions and nature parks.

Yet Syria has never relin­quished its claim over the Golan, and no other coun­try save Israel has rec­og­nized the Jew­ish state’s sov­er­eignty. That’s why the EU’s direc­tive requires sep­a­rate label­ing for prod­ucts, like olive oil, which are pro­duced there — even though the White House and many mem­bers of Con­gress have stren­u­ously objected to such reg­u­la­tions on the grounds that they are dis­crim­i­na­tory and coun­ter­pro­duc­tive.

Avner Talmon (Photo by Larry Luxner)

That’s another rea­son to go to the States,” he said. For every per­son who doesn’t want to buy from the Golan, there are four who do.”

Pol­i­tics aside, there’s no dis­put­ing the Jew­ish his­tor­i­cal pres­ence here. At least 30 syn­a­gogues from the Roman and Byzan­tine peri­ods have been exca­vated through­out the Golan. Yet Mideast pol­i­tics, rather than sound busi­ness deci­sions, fre­quently dic­tate what’s in the best inter­ests of Israel’s Arab neigh­bors.

Jor­dan has a water cri­sis, so seven years ago, on my own ini­tia­tive, I knocked on their door with a solu­tion free of charge,” Tal­mon said of his meet­ing with Jor­dan­ian author­i­ties hop­ing to increase domes­tic olive oil pro­duc­tion. They were inter­ested, but they stopped talk­ing to me the moment they heard I was in the Golan.”

Olea Essence sells 120 dis­tinct prod­ucts and employs 25 peo­ple. In 2010, the com­pany was the Israeli win­ner of the Clean­Tech Open com­pe­ti­tion in San Fran­cisco.

I am sus­tain­able, I am organic and I don’t need cer­ti­fi­ca­tion,” Tal­mon boasted. I’m more organic than all those who have cer­tifi­cates.”

At present, Olea’s most promis­ing mar­kets are the United States and South­east Asia — specif­i­cally Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Sin­ga­pore and the Philip­pines. His sin­gle biggest cus­tomer is Whole Foods Mar­ket, which cur­rently car­ries the Eco Olea line of organic house­hold clean­ing prod­ucts.

Our house­hold clean­ers are the only ones in the world that are fully nat­ural,” he said. We’re the only one on Whole Foods shelves that is green. The Con­sumer Prod­ucts Safety Com­mis­sion said I don’t need to apply to the FDA or any­one in the States. Noth­ing calls for any inspec­tions. The Envi­ron­men­tal Work­ing Group rates us triple‑A.”

Prices for Olea Essence prod­ucts range from $8.00 for a 50-ml tube of olive wash and exfo­liant to $90 for eye cream and face serum. The com­pany also has three spe­cific olive oil brands: Beit Saida Green ($19.00 for a 900-ml tin); Kursi Black Seal ($22.00) and Tabha Gold Seal ($28.50).

Tal­mon owns 50 per­cent of Olea Essence; the other half is owned by the Haama Group, Israel’s biggest tex­tile com­pany, and by Israeli indus­tri­al­ist Danny Hoff­man.

The own­ers fell in love with our busi­ness and invested some money,” said Tal­mon, who’s poured $4 mil­lion into Olea since the begin­ning but refused to dis­cuss rev­enues. It’s prof­itable now. We’re invest­ing every­thing back into the com­pany.”



Larry Luxner is a Tel Aviv-based jour­nal­ist and pho­tog­ra­pher. He trav­eled to the Golan Heights for this story in early Octo­ber.

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