Brittany Barrineau, ACOR-CAORC pre-doctoral fellow for 2016–2017, writes below about her research into the social, political, and economic forces that are transforming Jordan’s traditional but rapidly evolving olive oil industry.
The olive harvest festival in Irbid included an outdoor opening ceremony with poetry, several speakers, two dance groups, a marching band, and a small speech by the Minister of Agriculture. People expressed their excitement and some even took the opportunity to address the Minister about their concerns regarding the olive industry and the challenges of this season. This season saw some of the lowest yields in years. Inside the festival, the main room was set up with booths from local producers and organizations. The neighboring room featured a kitchen with women making food for sale. The booths included several mills selling bottles and tanakas (16 kg tin cans) of this year’s olive oil. There were also a variety of small businesses and women’s societies selling handicrafts and agricultural products and organizations such as the Jordanian Society for the Sensory Evaluation of Food.
Although the selling of oil and agricultural goods continues throughout the year, the olive harvest, which falls between September and January, is a time when people come together to harvest, mill, and sell their olives, the oil, and related goods. Although many people who work in the industry (i.e., farmers, mill owners, members of organizations) have other forms of income, during the olive season the mills open and this constellation of people and places comes together for a few months.
My dissertation explores the creation of extra virgin olive oil within its current and historical context in Jordan. I examine the entire production process, from the care that goes into growing olive trees, to processing (milling) the olives, and finally marketing. Producing extra virgin olive oil requires particular care and scrutiny at each step so that the oil will reach international standards. However, these standards are not a priority for all producers and they are a new concept on the local market.
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In several areas of Jordan, farmers can point to old Roman trees as evidence of the long history of olives as central to the culture there. However, areas such as Ikfarat, north of Ibrid, were known for wheat and lentils long before they had a reputation for oil. Several farmers recounted how, in the 1970s and 1980s, the price of olive oil was good, the price of wheat was dropping, and the Ministry of Agriculture was selling affordable olive tree saplings. As a result, today many of the previous wheat fields are olive tree groves. Although olives were a previously existing crop, the expansiveness and increased dependence on it is not a natural phenomenon and is instead a product of global and local economic and political processes.
My project uses extra virgin olive oil as a lens to examine processes of globalization in Jordan. Both chemical and sensory evaluations based on international standards determine whether olive oil is extra virgin or another grade. While this classification has resonance on the global market, locally in Jordan there is not a large general consciousness regarding what extra virgin means or what are its requirements. However, many large producers are trying to increase awareness about what extra virgin means. The goal of this campaign is not only to differentiate high-quality products from low-quality, but it also seeks to raise the quality of production overall in Jordan in order to become more competitive on the global market.
In an effort to understand the global and local context of extra virgin olive oil production in Jordan, my project explores how these efforts are being made and what are the repercussions. Olive oil production is one example of how the line between traditional and modern production is blurry. The importance is not ‘what is traditional’ and ‘what is modern’, but how people construct these ideas and what they reveal about the current processes of globalization taking place in Jordan.
Written by Brittany Barrineau
Brittany Barrineau is a Ph.D. candidate in geography at the University of Kentucky. She earned an M.A. in Geography (2012) from the University of South Carolina and a B.A. in Geography and Anthropology (2009) from the University of Mary Washington. Her current research examines how state power, international geopolitics, and place-based identities converge in the complex relationship between farmers, their land, and the business of extra virgin olive oil in Jordan.