Working together in the endless fields of olive trees
Raúl works mostly alone throughout the year, even if his father, who is retired, is always there to give a hand. He would like to hire a permanent employee. In any case, whether for grapes or olives, at harvest time he needs additional help. So he hires temporary workers, often foreigners from Morocco and Romania. Indeed, the production of olive oil employs more than 2 million workers per year in Spain, between the harvest in the fields, production in the “almazaras” (“oil mills”), and the “entamadoras” – i.e. companies dedicated to table olives.
In the harvest period, the workday starts around 8 am. When I first came to visit Raúl’s olive fields – where he is joined again this season by workers Mickie, Theo, and Rodri – I initially noticed the absence of barriers to delimit his olive trees from those of his neighbour. Then, amidst the rows and rows of trees, my attention was gradually drawn to the colours on display – the orange of the stones, the dark green of the foliage, the grey of the sky.
Next, I noticed the monotonous, steady hum of the harvesting machines, composed of an automatic handle that looks like a comb, which knocks the olives from their branches. It is physically demanding work: while Theo and Raúl knock the olives off a tree, Mickie and Rodri move two large nets surrounding the trunk of a harvested tree to the next tree still full of fruit. Once the nets are sufficiently filled, Mickie and Rodri gather the fruits of the harvest on another white plastic sheet, which Raúl picks up with a tractor. He puts everything in a big trailer. Then, he quickly takes them to the local oil mill.
As often, the mill works on a cooperative model, with several farmers who come together and create a cooperative to grind their olives using the same equipment. In fact, more than 70% of Spanish olive oil is produced in these cooperatives, whose operation is governed by laws at the national level. Most of the olive oil produced that way is then sold “wholesale” and exported to the USA, Japan, or other European countries like France and Italy.
From a collective work to a noisy reality
In Madridejos, everyone I met told stories about the olive harvest. It is present in people’s collective and individual memory. The agricultural practices of fifty years ago or more are remembered as bygone, idyllic, collective celebrations, for example when workers used a "vara", a long wooden stick, to tap the branches of the olive tree and make the olives fall, while singing and eating all together.