Amfora Olives for Centuries

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“These Erkence olive trees are centuries old, some almost 600 years, an inheritance from our great grandparents, it belongs to all of us, the whole village”. 

Barış Topsakal, once upon a time a physics teacher, is now serving as the social media guru/sales and branding person behind the Amfora Olive Oil in Beyler Village, Seferihisar. The picturesque village is perched on a mountain hill in the Aegean Sea Region. The name (amphora) is a tribute to the ancient terracotta storage pots that have been shaped like a tear drop and have been found in many antique cities that are almost like freckles of this region. When I ask how many people live in the village, his upbeat voice is lost for a minute: “Mostly retired people are here. Young ones have been moving away, especially after our school in the village was closed permanently. When you are without a school, how are you supposed to keep the young families here?”

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Very valid question. Changes have been happening all over Turkey, with rezoning, districts are changing, so are the rights assigned to each district, neighborhood or town – depending on how they are classified. People can not  and do not count on farming for their livelihood anymore and they have their rightful reasons. 

But the ones stay behind, and people like Barış are trying to keep the traditional way of olive farming alive. “We don’t know exactly how many trees we have. They are not in orderly, neat rows. They are all over the hills. So it is hard for vehicles to go around, we do everything by hand. Everybody tends to their own patch.” His smile comes back “I think because it is difficult to get around, the developers have not come around yet and will probably stay away for a while at least”. I hope they do. But the developers are all over the country, and I have not met a hill that has stopped them yet. When Barış says there is a very good view of the Aegean Sea from the Seferihisar hills, my heart sinks. I think to myself “Then they will definitely come some day!” 

The village in Seferihisar district in Izmir has been collecting their olives by hand, making olive oil in their village, and trying to sell it in area farmer markets and online. They do not have an irrigation system, making them completely dependent on rainfall. They do not use weed killers. Thankfully they do not have invasive weed types, the villagers clean up the orchard from the weeds every two years. With their choices of how to manage this orchard, they are qualified for organic farming grant, given by Izmir Municipality. It is not much but anything helps in this endeavor. So, it is a roll of dice really, every year, what kind of quality and quantity of olives they get. 

“A couple of years ago, it was so good, you could eat olives straight from the branch”. They keep these for their own tables, a perk of hard work and good conditions.  Erkence type olive tree is not the perfect one for "table olives" as we call it in Turkey, the ones we serve at breakfast. But when the conditions are just right, a certain bacteria gets to work and breaks the bitterness of the olive, produces very high quality olives that you can actually eat right from the tree per Barış. Doing a little research on IOOC publications, I find out that this Phoma oleae type becomes active when you have frequent wet winds during ripening phase. As it lessens the bitterness, it also turns the color of olive to brown, which resembles dates, "hurma" in Turkish. You just have to be quick in collecting before or immediately right after it falls onto the ground. Some years ago, their production was good for their terms, they got some of these high quality olives for their own tables. Some years they get 120 liters of olive oil, some years several thousands of liters. When he estimates that their harvest will be 1.5 tons this year. Turns out, olive trees do not like consistent high temperatures just like myself.  As the temperatures linger above the optimum level for olive trees, the yield might get affected. In this day and age of continuous production and increasing sales pressure many commercial products face, Barış accepts this fluctuation as a part of the path chosen: : “Since we don’t do fertilization and irrigation, and harvest by hand or with hand tools, it is expected". They have four olive oil factories in the village, one using stone pressing, the old style production facility. Once they harvest the olives, it gets processed right there in the village.

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 “These trees give us everything we need. ”Barış repeats these words which I have heard many times in the past year from various people. The amendments to the rules and regulations in agriculture touched a nerve last year when it came to “redefining what an olive orchard is”, how close the mining or industrial operations can be”. The agriculture policies are dicey in Turkey, changing with every newly appointed minister. They have also become not very farmer friendly lately, not even consumer friendly anymore. We import the produces that we used to grow ourselves. 2006 and 2016 Seed Regulations have affected the livelihood of the small scale farmers who depends on heirloom seeds in the produce they sell. 

Barış says they have not gotten the trademark yet on the oil name. But he is dedicated to working hard, paying his respect to the inheritance they have. It is a mutual love: Olive trees and villagers take care of each other as best and respectfully as they can. They have done so for centuries. And the trees will keep taking care of us as long as we let them.

I am hoping to see the orchards and the village next time I am in Turkey. I am sharing the pictures Baris shared with me and will update the post once I meet Barış and the other farmers in person. Meanwhile, you can get to know them through their Facebook page and Instagram feed

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Ilke McAliley2 Comments