It is at the bottom of the Tiger Leaping Gorges in Yunnan, China, after kilometres of train and bus, then 9 hours trekking on 1200 meters in height, that we finally meet Sean. Of Tibetan origin, his family has been living in the gorges for more than five generations and produces walnuts and walnut oil in this village known as Walnut Garden. But for the past 5 years, a government initiative has been pushing local farmers to convert to olives. So Sean looked into it. He shares with us his strong opinion.
In Olio Veritas – First of all, Sean, could you describe where we are?
Sean – We are at the exit of the Tigre Leaping Gorge, in the small village of Jiangbian at an altitude of about 1800 meters. It is the bottom of the valley on the banks of the mythical Yangtze River. The Gorges mountains stand up to an altitude of 5600 metres. The Jade Dragon’s Snowy Mount peaks at 5596 meters precisely. The land here is flat and has always been cultivated. In the village, some olive trees are nearly 10 years old, but in the fields they are very young, between 2 and 5 years old.
IOV – Are the altitude and the high mountain climate suitable for olive growing?
Sean – Perfectly! Everything grows here. It is hot and relatively dry all year round. Look, this February morning it’s almost 15°C. A few years ago, a government study showed that the region was one of the most favourable in China for olive cultivation. Inside the gorges, it’s different: the sunshine is not as good and the trees tend to grow very high to catch the sun. Which is a pain in the ass for the harvest.
IOV – The establishment of the olive here is therefore a government choice more than an evolution of local agriculture, isn’t it?
Sean – Yes it is. For the past 5 years, the government has been implementing an « olive project » that encourages each farmer to start growing olives instead of traditional crops, such as corn, rapeseed, walnuts, etc. Each canton has now its own press to produce olive oil. But it’s absurd for the peasants! They can’t make it, because it requires at least 8 years for an olive tree to bear any fruit. The olive trees are there but the farmers prefer to concentrate on other crops, such as the very juicy fruit of the dragon.
IOV – Where do these olive trees come from and what training did the farmers receive to grow them?
Sean – All the olive trees come from Israel. I don’t know the names of the varieties but I know them by the colour of the leaves. I know that dark greens will give more fruit than grays. With the olive trees, we hosted an Israeli expert who proposed training courses in the valley. Today the new trees are grown under greenhouses in a nursery in the nearby village of Daju.
IOV – The cultivation of the olive tree is therefore very recent. Who is or will be consuming the olive oil?
Sean – Rich people! We are told that olive oil is good for your health. I don’t even know exactly how. But the price shows how precious this oil is compared to the other and that it is not for everyone. Only the rich in the cities can afford this. Not the local peasants.
IOV – How do you see the future of olive oil in this region of Yunnan?
Sean – Large companies have taken over the subject and are running real businesses with olive oil in China, so it can work for them. But I don’t think it helps the local population. Traditionally, walnut oil is made here, which has a much stronger smell than olive oil. The olive can’t match the walnut here, I’m telling you!
IOV – Thanks Sean !
Back at Sean’s, we visit his shop. Olive oil is sold in a tiny vial with a pipette to be consumed drop by drop. Olive oil is still a marginal product in Yunnan and government-led olive cultivation is struggling to motivate local farmers. But Sean will continue to monitor this closely, ensuring that local people also benefit.
>> To learn more about olive oil in Chine, you can read our other articles in English here!