An old idiom states, “You can’t draw water from a stone,” but on land in western Turkey, farmers are growing olive trees from rocks. At least that’s the way it appears on my brother-in-law’s 350-acre spread east of Izmir. “Olive trees are survivors,” he says. “They’ve been around since antiquity, so they’ll grow just about anywhere.”
Photo on right: Kaya’s roots lie in Germany and Turkey–and he branched out to Iowa State University for enough years to achieve a doctoral degree. While working the high hills near Akhisar, Turkey, he sees his orchards–and the vast Anatolian plains that were once traversed by Hittites, Persians, and the armies of Alexander the Great.
Kaya and my sister Ann have more than 10,000 productive olive trees and a few thousand young seedlings, along with thousands of almond trees and a newly planted vineyard. “Of course we have to irrigate,” says Ann, “and it all takes lots of maintenance. But ask Kaya about the more interesting challenges–like the wild boars.”
Feral pigs are a problem in many parts of the world, and in Turkey they roam the orchards armed with steel snouts and refined palates. They apparently favor almond trees, and they can ruin a sizable area in a short time. During certain nights, Kaya and a hired farmhand sit on a tree platform to use a little rifle persuasion on the boars. Even the slain hogs are a nuisance—due to religious practices, scarcely anyone in Turkey eats pork.
Farmers in the area deal with the usual big issues such as supply and demand, weather-affected yields, and scurrilous market dealers. But the smaller problems are more sensational. “We’ve had a few scorpion bites,” Kaya told us. “One worker sat on a scorpion while sorting olives. No one has died, but it can make a person sick.”
Photo on right: Ann points out some of the irrigation system that weaves for miles above and below the ground. She grew up on a central Iowa farm where the soil is basically black and rock-free–and farmers tile low areas to drain water instead of irrigating. Ann has cut back on her recruiting and admissions work for universities, and she now spends the majority of her time tending chickens, joining in with the harvest, and–with the assistance of her two dogs Guinness and Pamuk–helping Kaya grow crops and “draw water from stones.”
Olive growing is labor intensive, and even though modern tech has come up with “tree shakers” to help with the picking, the system is not yet refined. “I’ve seen some of these machines strip bark and ruin trees,” said Kaya. While waiting for a kinder, gentler version, he and the farmers in his district hire work teams during harvest season. The process is complicated, but if the trees are productive and the markets strong, the rewards come in the form of delicious table olives and quality bottles of olive oil.
Farmers around the world continue to demonstrate optimism by planting seeds in the ground, but when that “good earth” includes a sizable amount of marble and other rock, it’s a real leap of faith. An old Turkish saying goes something like this: Inside every farmer you will find forty messages that insist,”next year will be better.”
Judging from the quality of the orchards, wheat fields, and vegetable plots on the plains of western Turkey, that proverb has come true.
by dan gogerty