`Meeting Up with Shimon Lavee, and The One About the Holy Tree - Olive Oil Times

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

Nov. 28, 2011
Lucy Vivante

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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.

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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.

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