Trend for organic olive oil grows

A few decades ago, before the use of chemical pesticides began in Greece, olive growers kept the olive fruit fly (Bactrocera oleae) away from their crops by hanging traps from the branches or spraying the trees with molasses. But when Stelios Kourkoutas decided to leave the city for a better quality of life and to cultivate olives organically, neighboring farmers in the relatively isolated part of the southeastern Peloponnese were skeptical. «How can you get a decent crop if you don’t spray with chemicals?» they asked. But a growing number of organic olive growers are finding that chemicals are not necessary and the «cleaner» way is not as time-consuming as conventional farmers claim. According to DIO, one of the three organic certification agencies approved by the Greek State and which covers 60 percent of the country’s organic oil production, in just 10 years the area devoted to the organic cultivation of olive trees in Greece grew from 600 hectares in 1994 to 15,500 hectares in 2001. And this does not include the remaining 40 percent covered by the other two certification bodies. Olives generally account for over half of Greece’s organically grown crops. In 2000, Kourkoutas planted 1,000 trees on 4.2 hectares of what was previously uncultivated land. There are no other groves around his property so he does not have to worry about his peripheral trees being contaminated by neighbors’ chemical attacks. (In such cases, the organic certification body excludes trees that are in close proximity to non-organically grown ones.) Instead of spraying against olive fruit fly, he first tests for their presence by hanging up a bottle containing a clear liquid that attracts the fly down into the bottle. It does not kill it but the fly is trapped and eventually drowns. As soon as flies are seen in the bottles, traps are placed on trees to attract and kill the fruit fly. The traps contain a pheromone that attracts the fruit fly and the trap itself is permeated with substances that kill the fly on contact. Kourkoutas uses Bioryl’s Ecotrap, the most widely used in Europe, hung on every second tree. Many of his fellow villagers have stopped spraying their olive trees for fear of the harmful effects of chemicals, and just collect whatever olives survive, without resorting to any organic methods of pest control, although farmers who depend on the olives for a livelihood say they can’t afford not to spray. «(Organic pest control) is not 100 percent effective but then neither are chemical sprays,» said Kourkoutas, estimating that the effectiveness is around 70-80 percent. «There is nothing worse than the chemicals used against the olive fruit fly. I have even seen farmers spraying just before picking, although the latest date permissible is 20 days beforehand.» He clears his fields of weeds using only mechanical means. Other farmers in the area still use herbicides, such as grammoxone, a desiccant herbicide also known as paraquat, toxic to humans and targeted for a global ban by the International Pesticide Action Network and already banned in some European countries. Kourkoutas uses imported organic fertilizers, supplemented with manure from organic poultry farms. With a partner, he has set up Vatel, a new olive oil processing firm that includes the produce of the seven or eight other organic olive growers in the area. They use the services of an olive press that sets certain days aside for organic crops (the presses are washed out at the end of each day). Next year, the organic growers have been promised a separate press by the owner of the one they are currently using. Vatel has its own standardization premises, where huge stainless steel vats are already filling up with this year’s crop. This will be its first year on the market, but you won’t find it in stores or supermarkets. The producers will be selling by home delivery, a revolutionary approach to sales in Greece that will help keep costs down by avoiding the supermarkets. «It will work to our advantage as well as that of the consumer,» said Kourkoutas. The 5-liter tins are being sold for 28 euros (5.60 per liter), including VAT, for delivery to anywhere in Greece. Commercial brands of conventionally grown olive oil sold in supermarkets cost around 17 to 21 euros for the same quantity. Kourkoutas claims there is an attempt to keep organic produce out of consumers’ reach but that the higher prices charged by many stores are not justified. »In Greece, organic olive oil prices are the same as in Italy, despite the different levels of income. It is true that organic products cost more to grow, but the wide price discrepancy (around 4 euros per liter for ordinary olive oil compared to 6.50-7 euros or more for organic), is not justified by the cost of producing it. It is a mistake to aim at the upper end of the market.» Vatel (Vatika Elaiourgiki), S. Kourkoutas and S. Papoulis OE, 23053 Elika Laconia, tel 27320.44290, e-mail: [email protected] Organically grown products now on show When you see a product marked «organic» it must bear the seal of one of the organizations accredited by the State to certify that it has been grown, processed and standardized according to European Union specifications for organically grown food products. A wide range of these products is currently on show at the Sixth Organic Products Festival organized by the organic certification organization DIO. The Ecofestival 2003, which opened yesterday with exhibits of products from over 150 producers and distributors from around Greece, runs until Sunday evening at the Athens Exhibition Center, 124 Kifissias Avenue, Ambelokipi. There will be a video screening on the organic cultivation of olives at 3 p.m. every day, as well as a number of other screenings and round-table discussions. For the complete program, call DIO at 210.8224.384 or check out their website (