The Palestinian olive harvest, an ancient autumn ritual in the West Bank, is going upscale.
In an emerging back-to-the-land movement, Palestinian farmers are turning the rocky hills of the West Bank into organic olive groves, selling their oil to high-end grocers in the US and Europe.
The move is a reflection of the growing global demand for natural, sustainable and fairly traded products, albeit with a distinct Palestinian twist.
The hardships faced by local farmers, ranging from a lack of rainfall to Israeli trade obstacles, mean that organic growing is one of the few ways Palestinians have to compete in outside markets.
"The Palestinian future is in the land," said farmer Khader Khader, 31, as he stood among his organic olives in the northern West Bank village of Nus Jubail.
Organic farming has grown into a thriving business, by Palestinian standards, since it first was introduced in the West Bank in 2004.
"Now, at least $5 million worth of organic olive oil is exported annually, which is about half of all Palestinian commercial oil exports," said Nasser Abu Farha, of the Canaan Fair Trade Association, one of the companies that sells high-end organic olive oil to distributors abroad.
The West Bank-based company purchases the oil at above market prices and pays what's called a "social premium"- extra money to farming cooperatives to improve their communities.
Organic olives in West Bank (Photo: AP)
About 930 farmers have fair-trade and organic certification, while another 140 are "converting" their land, a two-to three-year process during which they stop using chemical fertilizers and pest controls while monitors from Canaan and the Palestine Fair Trade Association provide training and check soil for chemical levels.
Their work is overseen by the Swiss-based Institute for Market Ecology, which is accredited to certify organic products for the US, EU, and Japan. Hundreds more farmers are simply certified as fair-trade, where they and their workers are paid decent wages for their work and produce.
The trade is tiny when compared to major olive growers like Spain, Italy and Greece. But it's significant for Palestinians, for whom harvesting olives is a cultural tradition that gathers even the most urbanized families.
An average of 17,000 tons of olive oil is produced in the West Bank every year by thousands of farmers, according to aid group Oxfam, which works on the olive industry.
Most is for local or personal use, and only about 1,000 tons is exported a year, though that number is likely higher since many farmers sell oil informally through relatives abroad, Abu Farha said.
Organic farmers hope the high-end trade will keep them on their lands, despite difficult odds and high overhead costs.
Outside markets for fresh produce are not very profitable. Goods must cross through Israeli-controlled export crossings, causing delays and lowering quality through exposure to sunlight and constant reloading from one truck to another.
Israeli military spokesman Guy Inbar said the long export process was solely for security reasons and "not intended to harm" exports, noting that Palestinians export some 100,000 tons of fresh produce a year.
New way of thinking
The challenges sparked a new way of thinking: Palestinians had to make finished goods that could survive the rough growing conditions and lengthy journey to outside markets.
Fair-trade, organic products that can be rain-fed, particularly olives, were the perfect solution.
"It's the future of Palestinian exports. The future is in added value, through environmental and social accountability," said Abu Farha of Canaan Fair Trade. "People want to know: "Where is this oil coming from? Whose life is it changing?"
This year, organic oil is selling for about $5.40 a liter - a dollar higher than conventional oil, Farha said. Other independent farmers are selling directly to consumers for $9 a liter, far above market price.
Farmers are going organic on other products, such as maftoul, a chewy sun-dried staple resembling couscous, as well as dried almonds and a spicy herb mix called "Zatar." But high-end oil is key.
In Whole Foods supermarkets in New York and New Jersey, it is sold under the "Alter Eco" brand, Farha said.
It can be found in Sainsbury's in Britain, and in boutique shops globally through Canaan and other distributers. Dr. Bronner's Magic Soap, a popular organic, fair traded vegan soap, sources 95% of its oil, some 165 tons, from Palestinian growers, the soap company said.
Despite the challenges, the move toward organic, sustainable farming is an important, elegant fight.
"I don't throw rocks," said Khader, referring to young men who frequently hurl stones during demonstrations. He pointed to his rock-built terraces. "I use them to build our future."