By Michael Owen, an olive grower in the Clare Valley in South Australia.
Have I really produced all this fruit? Am I really an olive grower? The doubt is nagging me but up to now I’ve only ever thought of myself as someone who grows olive trees because the fruit has simply failed to materialize because of the drought. And how can I take myself seriously when the sum total of my olive growing knowledge and experience is a night school course in 2000.
So, I’m about to pick our first olive crop and I’m excited and I’m panicking. What if the oil is no good? Koroneiki olives are famous for oil but virtually useless for the table. I think of nothing but extra virgin oil as I arrive at my first tree.
The olives decorate the trees like hundreds of tiny black and green baubles demanding to be picked and I can’t wait to get stuck in.
Friends have volunteered to help with the first harvest and silently approach their trees. They’re probably wondering what to do as, like me, they’ve never picked before. I don’t think they feel the way I do. They can’t. I have my heart and soul in this crop. But, they look cheerful enough.
As I rake the olives my thoughts go back to when we first bought the trees and the question of planting surfaced. We discussed how we would do it. We argued whether we should do it. We debated if we could actually do it. In the end we did tackle it ourselves but had absolutely no idea of what we were taking on.
We marked out a ten metre by five metre grid and started planting. We, my wife Kath and my two sons Tom and Harry, were full of energy and enthusiasm. I dug the holes, Tom put the trees in, Harry banked the earth and Kath gave them a good drink. It was August 2001 and the winter rains had failed once again. We moved achingly across the field and planted nearly a thousand trees in just three weekends.
There’s a shout from the other group as a tarpaulin begins to flap in the wind. Curses and olives fly through the air then laughter and picking starts again. A muttering figure dragging a sheet trudges by. No-one will work with him as he’s too demanding so Harry is despatched to keep the lone picker company.
I’m proud of my family. We did this all by ourselves. Every single tree was held in our hands, given words of encouragement and gently placed in the ground. We planted in freezing rain. We planted under clear blue skies. We planted in the still misty mornings and as the night descended. I remember cold hands, aching joints and blisters. Hardly a labour of love but there can’t be many families that have experienced this.
Some people work in silent concentration and take every single olive from the tree. Others chatter away and drift from tree to tree as and when the mood takes them. It really doesn’t matter – there are no instructions as we’re all first timers.
Years ago a local farmer laughed when he saw our lines of bonsai olive trees. ‘You’re mad planting in this drought,’ he said. I wish he were here now to see this.
The picking goes on and on and on. Every now and then one or two people head towards the campfire for warmth and rest. Others seem oblivious to the cold and carry on regardless. The lone picker now has a different helper.
It’s finally over but some people won’t stop. They insist on picking individual olives across the grove and are called in to cheers as they tip the last bucket into the trailer. Everyone stands around admiring the mound of green and black treasure until the need for warmth and nourishment takes over. I don’t know about the others but I’m aching from head to toe and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
At the press my head is thumping from the previous night’s celebrations but I don’t care. I’m trying to act nonchalant, as though this is something I do every year, but inside I’m dancing with excitement. The aroma is evocative – fresh grass and earth. The taste is sensual – smooth and peppery kick and the color is bright green.
Other growers arrive with their harvest. Everyone tries to act disinterested but they all have a furtive glance at the opposition. I want to run round shouting out the questions that whirl round in my head. When is the best time to pick? Why are yours greener than mine? How do you prune an olive tree? But I’m part of the olive growing fraternity now and it wouldn’t do to look foolish would it?