Olive Farmers Find Creative Ways to Beat Labor Shortages as Harvest Begins

A teacher in Italy allows students to miss class to help with the harvest. A Croatian man's one-year prison sentence was delayed to let him harvest the family grove.
students from the Matija Gubec International Primary School in Zagreb
By Nedjeljko Jusup
Oct. 11, 2023 14:20 UTC

As the olive har­vest gets under­way across the Mediterranean basin, one of the chal­lenges farm­ers across the region fre­quently face is find­ing enough work­ers to pick the olives.

With fam­ily units get­ting smaller – an aging pop­u­la­tion means many older adults are unable to endure the phys­i­cal chal­lenges of har­vest­ing tra­di­tional groves while an increas­ing num­ber of younger fam­ily mem­bers remain in school or uni­ver­sity – many small-scale farm­ers strug­gle to get all their olives har­vested in time to pro­duce extra vir­gin olive oil.

Historically, schools would adjourn in regions where olives are a cor­ner­stone of the local econ­omy to allow chil­dren and ado­les­cents to help their fam­i­lies with the har­vest.

See Also:Italy Eases Some of the Burden of Hiring Seasonal Workers

While this tra­di­tion has largely been aban­doned, there are excep­tions. One exam­ple comes from Ruvo di Puglia, Italy, where high school teacher Valeria Gargineli decided to exempt stu­dents from exams dur­ing the har­vest so that they could help their fam­i­lies.

If you went to pick olives the day before, be sure that I will not ques­tion your absence in my class,” the teacher told all stu­dents aged 16 to 17.

According to local media, she jus­ti­fied the deci­sion because stu­dents par­tic­i­pat­ing in the olive har­vest would be too tired to study after as many as 12 hours pick­ing olives and deliv­er­ing them to a local mill.

Students who miss class must pro­vide evi­dence, usu­ally in pho­tographs, to demon­strate they par­tic­i­pated in the har­vest.

It is impor­tant to return to tra­di­tion and the con­nec­tion with the land by going to har­vest with grand­par­ents or par­ents,” Gargineli said.

Supporters of these exemp­tions believe they are nec­es­sary to keep local olive farm­ing and cul­ture alive, with an increas­ing num­ber of young peo­ple leav­ing rural areas to pur­sue other pro­fes­sions in cities.

Across the Adriatic Sea in Croatia, teach­ers in urban set­tings are also try­ing to give young stu­dents the expe­ri­ence of har­vest­ing olives.

Last October, 80 stu­dents from the Matija Gubec International Primary School in Zagreb vis­ited the olive grove of OPG Uroda in north­ern Dalmatia to par­tic­i­pate in the har­vest. After the olives were milled, each stu­dent was given a small bot­tle of olive oil to reward their efforts.

Along with recruit­ing stu­dents to assist in the har­vest, local Croatian author­i­ties have even been known to post­pone prison sen­tences to allow the con­victs-to-be to har­vest.

In 2020, a court in the city of Zadar, in Dalmatia, post­poned a 38-year-old man’s one-year prison sen­tence for a month to har­vest his olives.

The man told the judge that his mother owned the fam­ily farm and could not find any work­ers to pre­pare for the har­vest and pick the olives. The judge accepted the request.

In the spe­cific case, there is a legal basis and post­poned the con­vic­t’s refer­ral to prison for a period of one month, dur­ing which time the court expects the con­vict to com­plete his fam­ily affairs and start serv­ing his prison sen­tence in Zadar prison,” she wrote.

In Australia, farm­ers of all types of crops, includ­ing olives, rely heav­ily on young for­eign labor. An esti­mated 150,000 back­pack­ers come to the coun­try yearly on tem­po­rary har­vest visas.

Many of these back­pack­ers enter the coun­try on a work­ing hol­i­day visa, requir­ing the holder to work at least 88 days in agri­cul­ture, hos­pi­tal­ity or tourism over six months.

Often, work­ing hol­i­day visa hold­ers fly to Australia in the sum­mer to enjoy the beach and travel along the coast before par­tic­i­pat­ing in the har­vest dur­ing the autumn and fin­ish­ing off the visa stay with more expen­sive out­ings, includ­ing vis­its to Uluru or the Great Barrier Reef, funded by money earned dur­ing the har­vest.


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