`Meeting Up with Shimon Lavee, and The One About the Holy Tree

Production

Meeting Up with Shimon Lavee, and The One About the Holy Tree

Nov. 28, 2011
By Lucy Vivante

Recent News

meeting-up-with-shimon-lavee-and-the-one-about-the-holy-tree-olive-oil-times-shimon-lavee

Shi­mon Lavee, a plant sci­en­tist and renowned expert in olives, took part in the Novem­ber 2011 Mediter­ranean Diet Forum. Lavee is Emer­i­tus Pro­fes­sor of the Hebrew Uni­ver­sity of Jerusalem and asso­ci­ated with the Vol­cani Cen­ter for agri­cul­ture research, where he was once its deputy direc­tor. For the Mediter­ranean Diet Forum he was on the sci­en­tific com­mit­tee, involved in a work­ing group focus­ing on the envi­ron­ment and old vari­eties of olives, and signed the Re.C.O.Med treaty on behalf of the Israeli Plant Board.

Pro­fes­sor Lavee, his wife who is an impor­tant fig­ure in the­atre for youth, and Zohar Kerem, a col­league of Lavee’s were in Europe for the forum before trav­el­ling to Madrid for an Inter­na­tional Olive Coun­cil (IOC) meet­ing. Prof. Lavee has been involved with the IOC, as the Israel del­e­gate and as its Pres­i­dent in 2000 and 2008.

The south­ern hemi­sphere is where Pro­fes­sor Lavee believes most of the world’s olive oil, at least the com­pet­i­tively priced olive oil, will come from in the long run. In Europe, he sees only Spain as being able to com­pete with Aus­tralia, South Africa, and the grow­ing num­ber of South Amer­i­can coun­tries that are grow­ing olives in hedgerows, using irri­ga­tion, and mech­a­nized means. Lavee spends his time devel­op­ing high-yield­ing olives meant for inten­sive cul­ture, and he is some­thing of a leg­end in his abil­ity to select plants.

Zohar Kerem spoke of this uncanny abil­ity to size up a tree just by look­ing at it. Lavee said that it wasn’t so much intu­ition as expe­ri­ence and that if you’re not good at it, you have to live with your mis­take – a poor tree – forty years later.

Advertisement

Lavee also spends his time help­ing grow­ers with plans for orchards, study­ing irri­ga­tion tim­ing and har­vest tim­ing, advis­ing grad­u­ate stu­dents, and attend­ing con­fer­ences such as the Mediter­ranean Diet Forum.

Can you talk about olive oil in Israel? How much is pro­duced and con­sumed?

Shi­mon Lavee: The pro­duc­tion in Israel is now, in a good year, between 9 to 10 thou­sand liters of oil, and we con­sume some­where around 17 thou­sand. Until now we used to import, in the last years about 50 per­cent. And in an off year, we pro­duce only four thou­sand tons, of course the import was much larger. Now this year, quite a new num­ber of orchards got into bear­ing, so it’s around, prob­a­bly 10, next year maybe will be at 11,000, so the import­ing is get­ting down a lit­tle bit. But, it will take years that we’ll have to import. Three-quar­ters are tra­di­tional, with low yields. About 60 per­cent of the pro­duc­tion today comes from about 25 per­cent of the area.

You’ve devel­oped a new olive?

We have a num­ber of them. The major olive, which has now been used all over the world, is called Barnea. That’s a big olive for shaker. We have a new vari­ety which is for the hedgerow and that’s the Askal vari­ety which appar­ently is going to, I believe, con­quer half the world, because it is very adapt­able both for an indi­vid­ual tree and for hedgerow and it has the oil con­tent of 28 to 30 per­cent with a yield of 20 tons per hectare. It’s being planted all over Israel. I have signed agree­ments with Spain, with South Africa, with Aus­tralia, with South Amer­ica, and with Italy we’re nego­ti­at­ing, they want to test it.

What should Italy be doing?

In Italy there is a prob­lem because the plots are very small, his­tor­i­cally – same as the tra­di­tional parts of Israel. A lot of the orchards are in moun­tain­ous areas. Now in those areas, the best inten­si­fi­ca­tion you can do is use a shaker. The hedgerow, that’s not for this kind of thing. That’s a prob­lem. Italy will have to spe­cial­ize in bou­tique oils, high priced oil for the spe­cial cus­tomers who are ready to pay for the name and so on. Jus­ti­fied or not, that’s not the point. But like some peo­ple are ready to pay 200 dol­lars for a bot­tle of wine because that’s the rep­u­ta­tion and this I think is the direc­tion which Italy will have to go. From the Euro­pean coun­tries, I think that in the long run the only one which will be able to com­pete, also on bulk, is Spain, because they have large areas, also of sin­gle own­er­ship and also ter­rains where you can do full mech­a­niza­tion. I am sure in Italy there are some regions where you can also. What I know is the Flo­rence region, around Peru­gia, and it’s not that easy.

Your col­league said that I should ask you about the Geth­se­mane olives.

That was one of the fun­ni­est things that ever hap­pened to me. I got a call from the Pub­lic Rela­tions Depart­ment of the Munic­i­pal­ity of Jerusalem. They said Look, from Geth­se­mane, they asked if they can have some­body who is an expert in olives. There is some­thing wrong with a holy tree.’ I said, Okay, next time I go to the Sen­ate at the Uni­ver­sity in Jerusalem, I’ll come by.’ So I did, and there was a branch that was declin­ing. This hap­pens. So, I said Okay,’ and I took a big gar­den shear and I cut off this branch up to a cer­tain point, and they were shocked about it, [they said] What will hap­pen?’ I said, Look, in about a year from now, from this place you’ll get a new branch.’ And, of course, this hap­pened.

So I became the celebrity of the holy place there, and it was writ­ten in the news­pa­per of the Vat­i­can that the Israeli sci­en­tist saved the holy olive, and I was per­son­ally so insulted. You know at that time, I pub­lished a study which I worked on five years and which I thought from the sci­en­tific point of view it was really a piece of work and, as usual, when you pub­lish some­thing like that you get ten, twenty requests for reprints, and for that stu­pid thing I was writ­ten up all over the world, in every news­pa­per.

Related News