Even during a crushing economic crisis more than seven years long, Greeks enjoy a luxury the rest of the world doesn’t: market shelves filled with superior olive oil so good it’s called “green gold,” and which the country’s farmers and even major companies fail to export.
Instead, most of the olive oil produced in the country is by bulk, using heated methods instead of cold pressing that would be a critical step in making pricy extra virgin olive oil in demand around the world.
Yiannis Skiadas, who makes olive oil in a mountainside mill using Kalamata olives, perhaps the world’s best from a famed Peloponnese region, shuns the extra work needed to make the higher quality product and instead sells bulk to Italian companies, who blend it into their own under Italian brands that show no sign of the Greek influence.
“All these intermediate steps lead to a rise in our costs,” he told The Wall Street Journal, which outlined the special sadness of Greece ceding away recognition for one of its most valuable and prized products and an industry that is an example of how a lack of bank loans, a notorious bureaucracy and not knowing how to promote, brand, export and advertise the olive oil is costing more than 250 million euros ($295.5 million) in annual losses.
The value of Greek exports fell last year, despite years of efforts aimed at promoting export-led growth and only 2.5 percent of Greek companies get involved in exporting, a report by Ernst & Young auditors found, the paper said.
It’s especially poignant given that tiny Greece is the world’s third largest producer of olive oil, blessed with a perfect sunny climate, and an ancient history in making the stuff that is one of the most important symbols of the country.
But a National Bank of Greece report found only 4 percent of branded oil around the world – most of it sadly inferior to Greece’s green gold – is Greek, and instead has labels from a myriad of other countries where farmers and companies have taken the time to reach out to foreign markets.
Greek olive-oil producers have mostly stuck to making bulk oil, unable or unwilling to invest in making the branded product that can command lofty prices in foreign markets. Only 27% of Greek olive oil is exported as a branded product, compared with 50% from Spain and 80% from Italy.
“Greece hasn’t invested to create a brand name, as have Italy and Spain,” Christina Sakellaridi, who heads the Greek Exporters Association told The Journal. “Now it’s difficult to compete with them.”
One of the biggest problems – and the ironic reason why Greek olive oil is so superior – is that many olive farms and mills are family-operated and have fewer than 10 employees and there’s a lack of money and management skills to brand the commodity and ship it.
In some US super markets, such as Whole Foods, you can find branded Greek olive oil, such as that made by Gaea, known for its high quality even in Greece. But it’s surrounded by stuff that, by comparison, you’d rather cook with than put on your salad.
There’s a lot of money to be made by making Extra Virgin olive oil and exporting it, along with the worldwide recognition it could bring Greece and its farmers, whose ancestors tilled the soil more than 2500 years ago to make the same product.
Before the crisis, Georgios Skarpalezos sank money into new machinery for his mill and now his Extra Virgin olive oil is sold in upscale markets in London, making him as much as 4 euros ($4.73) a liter. Those who sell in bulk make 20 to 40 times less, 10 to 20 cents.
To produce bottled extra virgin olive oil, local farms would have to pay an agronomist to check their fields at least twice a year to make sure they are disease-free and send soil and olive samples to labs to check the type of fertilizers or herbicides used. The trees would have to be irrigated and pruned according to specific rules.
The olive oil makers would also have to upgrade other parts of the process, including using crates or fabric sacks for the olives instead of cheap plastic bags many prefer, and use cold pressing methods instead of heating.
So while Greek-made olive oils keep winning prizes in competitions around the world – 21 in Los Angeles this year, another 21 in New York – that’s the only place they’re available and when the doors shut, so does their chances of gaining a share of the world market.