The Men Behind the Olives in Galilee

23 Mar
Olives 1

The “Shaking” Machine at work

“It’s a blustery day,” would be something Winnie the Pooh would have said about one chilly day in Galilee last December.  I step outside my house in a hat and a windbreaker and await my ride to the fields.

Allon, a fifty-something farmer, and a longtime resident of Kfar Tavor, shows up in his truck.  “Get in,” he says.  “We’re running late.”  Ten minutes later, we arrive at a large olive grove.  The ground is heavy and soggy.  I climb onto a large tractor that makes its way to the first row of  olive trees.  It’s a race against time.  The rain will soon return, making the picking of the olives much more difficult.

Allon at the Controls

Allon at the Controls

Allon is a seasoned farmer in Galilee.  He’d also gone to California’s Central Valley to learn the latest farming methods.  He owns thousands of almond trees.  And a small vineyard.  But today he’s working as an olive-picking contractor.  He’s renting out his Italian-made equipment.

For me, who’d long thought apples, oranges, chicken breast (and olive oil) came from the supermarket, today’s a vivid reminder of how a farmer’s life  and fortune are unpredictable.  Olive oil is big business.  The olives must be picked within days or the entire year’s crop will be ruined.  The olive press facility is booked solid, operates 24/7.  There’s a time slot assigned to this one harvest.  You don’t show up, they’ll press someone else’s olives.

The farmer wheels his tractor inside the grove, unloads a stack of empty crates.  Allon goes to work.  In his hands he holds a joy-stick with levers, controls the “shaker” machine remotely.  Move one lever up and the mechanical arm of the machine snakes its way towards the tree trunk.  Toggle another lever and the clamp, the “mouth” of the machine, wraps itself around the trunk like a noose.

Loosening the olives off the branches with sticks

Loosening the olives off the branches with sticks

This is when the men show up.   Six farmhands, all foreign — Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese — spread a wide tarp on the ground, at the foot of the tree.  It’s cool, the sun has lost its punch, yet the Oriental men cover their faces in scarves, bandannas, sunglasses.  I question Allon.  “They don’t want to burn their skin,” he says.  “To them, black is not good.”  He then signals them with a head nod.  The men produce long, stiff wood sticks.  They swing the sticks and whack the olive branches overhead.  Again.  Again.  And again.  That’s the first step in “loosening” the tree.  If the trees could talk, they would cry.  Whack!  The branches quiver in the wind.Olives 2

Allon smiles, exposes a wide gap in his teeth.  It’s time to bring in the big guns.  “Stay to my right,” he tells me, urging me to keep away from the long metal arm that slithers towards the tree.  He illustrates how the clamp grabs the trunk.  “It’s like sex,” he explains, motioning to how the arm glides under the tree canopy, under its “skirt.”  The sexual references don’t end there.  As the expert in the field, pun intended, he says the ideal tree trunk must have an “erection” – in other words, straight and without a bend.  “This way the clamp can get a good grip.”

He laughs.  I can’t help but laugh too.

One final toggle of the joy-stick and the show begins.  The tree begins to shake violently, as if possessed by demons.  It’s no wonder the Italian machine is called “The Tornado.”  The branches shake; they’re out-of-focus.  The noise is similar to that of a blender at full grind.  Hundreds, if not thousands of olives are released from the tree, glide in the air, and fall as casualties on the tarp below.

One tree done.  Five hundred to go.

“Why do you push the schedule to its limit?” I ask, thinking one false move, someone calls in sick, the machine breaks downs, and it’s all lost.

“It’s a calculated risk,” he says.  “We wait until the last minute because that’s when the fruit (the olives) are at their heaviest.  They’re at maximum ripeness.  And they carry maximum oil.  They WANT to fall off the trees.  We just help mother-nature.”

The men lift the edges of the tarp and push the olives — green, black, purple — to the center, and from there, to the conveyor belt.  A large air blower blows off the leaves before the olives are dumped into the crates.

These Oriental men replaced the Arab men of yesteryear.  The men are “imported” to Israel.  Allon is their caretaker.  The men are under a work contract for a few years.  When done, they’ll return home with the money they’d saved.  In the meantime, Allon provides them with shelter (bungalows in a nearby village), medical care, and wages.  A Thai man calls out to the Chinese man in Hebrew: “Bring the crates over here!”

Hebrew is the one thing that unites them!

Each crate contains 900 pounds of olives (400 KG)

Each crate contains 900 pounds of olives (400 KG)

Within two days Allon and his crew will have picked the olives off the five hundred trees.  They will turn bare.  The fruit will be hauled to the olive press in an Arab village.  After four nights of pressing and squeezing, the fruit will surrender its juices and produce the finest olive oil.

See you at the market.


Maurice Labi is an Israeli-American who lived in Los Angeles for many years. In 2011 He returned to Northern Israel (Galilee) with his wife and twin teen-age daughters. He is of two lands, of two cultures and he blogs about his experiences in Israel, particularly from Galilee where Jews and Arabs dwelled for centuries.

He has also written three novels: “Jupiter’s Stone,” “Into the Night,” and “American Moth” — available at or


2 Responses to “The Men Behind the Olives in Galilee”

  1. WALLY April 2, 2013 at 6:20 am #




  2. rachel bar April 7, 2013 at 1:58 pm #

    I learn a lot from your blogs. The one regrettable fact is that there are no Israeli farmers who work the land anymore.

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