Land in Israel

Israeli Olive Oil Quality and Prices

JOEL YOSEF BUSNER

JOEL YOSEF BUSNER

Director, Buy a Piece of Israel
Founder, L'Ma'an Ha'am

What you should know when you buy olive oil from Israel

Although we’ve been producing olive oil for last several years now, it’s taken experience and comparison reading to really get a handle on the subject.  One of the most frustrating things for myself personally was being told by many people that our olive oil is too expensive.  It takes a lot of effort and a lot of expenses to produce high quality oil.  On a trip to the United States almost two (2) years ago I was taken aback to see my friend’s wife bring back a container of virgin olive oil from Costco at some ridiculously low price that worked out to be about half of what I was charging in Israel for Galilee grown and produced olive oil.  After consulting with several veteran olive farmers as well as reading many international reports about oil, and most importantly, working the olive fields with my own hands, I feel compelled to share my knowledge and insight with our readers.

Not All Olive Oil is Olive Oil

I have learned that without proper certification, it is possible, often probable, that cheap olive oil is mixed with other cheaper oils.  Not only is the consumer being misled, he/she is consuming an inferior product that more than likely is lacking many of the great health benefits derived from consuming high quality olive oil. 

Virgin Olive Oil versus Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Generally speaking, internationally, oil that has acidity levels below 2% and above 0.8% is considered virgin olive oil.  In North America, oil above 0.8% is very common and sold regularly with a lot of promotion and marketing as virgin olive oil. 

In Israel most properly produced oils, meaning domestically grown and cold pressed in Israel, range between 0.3% and 0.8% acidity level and are defined as extra virgin olive oil.

Where to Purchase Olive Oil In Israel

Most consumers purchase their olive oil from attractive glass bottles from their local groceries.  Other chain stores such as pharmacies may sell olive oil as well.  These oils are not as inexpensive as what I saw in New York, which turned out be a lower quality oil.  Sometimes the supermarkets here in Israel will run specials and sell a 750 ml bottle for anywhere from 23 to 29 shekels discounted from 30 to 39 shekels.  So how do we have the nerve to sell our oil for 50 shekels for 1,000 ml (1 liter)?

Why Our Oil Is Better

Oil produced like ours is boutique olive oil.   Boutique olive oil is not only from cold pressed olives, it is from olives picked from the trees during harvest and very quickly brought to the olive press without fermenting from sitting too long in the sacks after picking.  In addition, the Israeli olives that we grow are from trees that were planted strategically far apart and with annual pruning of branches so that the branches grow wide and not high.  This is for maximum sun exposure. 

Other Important Factors

After the olives are cold pressed, the oil is poured into large containers of between 16 and 18 liters.  Ideally, the containers should be placed in a cool, dark room for about 2 months.  This allows for the sediments to settle at the bottom and to be poured clear into the 1 liter bottles to be sold. 

Harvesting the olives when they are a nice size but not over ripe also ensures that the oil will have less acidity and be of higher quality.  While there are laboratories that you can bring oil to be tested and there are labels that have the insignia attesting to the quality of the store bought oil, you should also make sure that the oil isn’t too old, that it hasn’t sat on the shelf for too long.  While oil stored properly can be fine for up to two years, a rule of thumb is not to purchase oil that has been pressed longer than a year earlier.

The Ultimate Judge of Quality: You

One of the big differences that I noticed and then confirmed with the experts was the ‘burn’ factor.  I don’t care what it says on the label, if I take a teaspoon of oil and swallow it and it doesn’t cause a short term peppery burn sensation in my throat, it just doesn’t make the grade.  Every year, when you taste our oil straight from a spoon, you will experience the peppery burning sensation for a few seconds.  In addition, the boutique quality olive oil tastes great and you will find that you need to use less of it in your salads than other inferior oils. 

Other Factors that Increase Cost

Our project uses exclusively Avoda Ivrit, Jewish manual labor.  While we do get a lot of volunteers we believe in paying our workers a proper wage.  This adds a little to our costs.   In addition, unlike many of the fine boutique quality virgin olive oil producers, we don’t use poisons such as pesticides or herbicides.  What does this mean for our costs?  Well, the farmers who spray their trees in the spring for example, can come back after 3 or 4 days to find that the once after winter 8 feet high weeds and thorns are now lying flat and dry as hay on the ground.  Not a big deal to clean.  However, because we don’t utilize this method, we must cut and mulch all of the huge growth from the winter before the spring season gets under way.  This adds a lot to the annual labor expenses.

Security and Water

In general, what farmers pay for water in Israel costs more than what farmers pay for water in most Western countries.  This is a disadvantage to all Israeli growers compared to the international growers.  Of course, our Arab neighbors often are the perpetrators who vandalize many Jewish orchards and sometimes even more frustrating, will pick all the fruit off your trees before you have had a chance to bring your crew to harvest.  Imagine all the time, money, and effort go down the drain because of thieves.  We have adjusted and have been adding more security as we have acquired more lands to manage.  It is worth it in order to deter theft.

Income Per Olive Tree

Why am I bringing up income per olive tree?  Simply to give you a perspective of why we charge what we charge and why we will need to triple the amount of land we now manage to make it worth to expand into exporting our boutique extra virgin olive oil.

Because we follow Shmita and don’t participate in Heter Mechira, we lose all income every seven (7) years.  As we observe Orlah we only benefit at the end of the fourth (4th) year from the time of planting. 

A well-managed mature olive tree in a very strong year may produce 50 kilos of olives and if we’re lucky roughly 20% or twenty liters of oil will be produced.  With 36 trees on a dunam of land, this means about 700 liters of oil per dunam in a banner year.  In a sub par year we can get only 150 liters from a dunam.  This is why we feel that if we can average 250 liters per liter per dunam we can say that a dunam should earn on average between $2,500 and $4,000 annually in sales.  After deducting all expenses including labor, a profit of $700 or $800 per dunam, pre-tax is attainable. 

In conclusion, while this writing isn’t the most deeply researched and source quoted from traditional sources, it is my view based on the last several years of hands on Avoda Ivrit experience. 

Hope you can join us!

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