Back in September, I read an interesting article from the Smithsonian on EVOO (extra virgin olive oil). The article featured Tonio, a sixth-generation olive oil producer in Altamura, Puglia, Italy. The traditional olive production and harvest require lots of hands (all the family and neighbours) and uncompromising dedication to quality. In the article, it featured that today, many work-away volunteers come to join the family harvest in November. It piqued my interest, and I decided to email Tonio and ask if I can be a part of the olive team.
Two weeks later, I get a reply from Tonio, and he wants to chat over Skype. It was an interview! We had a great discussion – about farming, the traditional way of producing food, the importance of natural and locally grown food, and of course olive oil. I had a good feeling after the interview too. Last time I worked full time on a farm was six years ago (in organic farms in the British Columbia, Canada). I felt that this may be a timely opportunity for me to revisit the life and hands-on work of family farming while I am still working on my thesis (intellectualising about small-scale agriculture). So I decided to get my hands (and mind) grounded!
Here is how it worked: a team of seven people work with Tonio for three weeks to harvest the olives. Depending on the weather conditions (if it is not raining), we would go to the field – working from 7:30 AM until sunset (around 5 PM). Harvesting olives involve the following. First, shaking off the branches and knocking off the olives manually and mechanically (using hand rakes & pneumatic rakes, long sticks, and picking with hands). Then, setting up large nets underneath and collecting and packing olives in crates. After that, loading up the full boxes in the van, and then bringing the goods to the local press for oil extraction. And repeat for eleven days. With no day off.
The work is tough. We endured long hours of uncomfortable posture: continually looking up and straining neck and shoulder muscles, bending up and down and picking up crates that are over 40 kilogrammes and then carrying it over long distances on an uneven field. We had to work at a high pace in coordination with an equally tired and exhausted group of seven. And having only one break (at lunchtime) to manage all the work seemed a punishing challenge. And it was! My romantic ideals of traditional olive harvest in Italy quickly vanished after the first morning of work. Welcome to the reality of organic family farming in the 21st century. Capisce!
What kept us going and survive (and in the end thrive over) this gruelling challenge? We were exhausted, but as a group/family, we were able to live and work together despite all the hardship. We shared our pains, life stories, laughs and most importantly, good food. Tonio’s mother (the grandmother of the Creanza famiglia) and his sister-in-law Rosanna, cooked fantastic food for us. I was speechless every meal (with a full mouth); it made me forget and drop everything at the dinner table. It was me and the food. I tasted, actually tasted the food. Beyond deliciousness, simple everyday food healed and nourished our body and soul; and moreover, it transformed us – strangers from different parts of the world – into a family. Italians got it – we nurtured our relationships around the kitchen table, and our body and soul full-heartedly agreed with love for natural and quality food.
At the end of the harvest, I realised how hard it is to continue the traditional way of farming and to produce good quality food today. It is hard not only physically but more so socio-economically. Today, we rely upon and buy food from supermarkets where we (as consumers) are accustomed to large quantities of food from all around the globe. This scene is an artificial (and inaccurate) picture of reality. We see a distorted view of an abundance of food available to us regardless of the seasonality. What’s more, we favour aesthetically uniform shapes and colours of produce, where nature’s diversity has a low place in our markets. Besides our obsession with perfect looking foods, other aisles are full of prepackaged and already-made foods that industrial food giants lure us to believe in ‘convenience’. That is, the convenience of saving our time and money. In other words, they propose a hassle-free life: do away with preparing, cooking and setting (and cleaning) up tables, all of which make the experience of a proper family eating collaborative and engaging. We seemed to have little patience for cooking and eating. It’s almost as if we don’t care, and we are told just to shove whatever into our body without taking the necessary time and appreciation from where and what, by whom, and when and how it arrived at our table.
Most of us eat at least twice or more a day. We do this EVERYDAY, for life. Shouldn’t this be a joyful and meaningful ritual? And what if we all enjoyed and shared this joy more with people around us? Besides the life-changing experience of olive harvest and meeting and connecting with amazing people from all walks of life, I confirmed that one of the greatest treasures and pleasures of the everyday life is in our food. Right under our nose!