While olives grow in a Mediterranean climate and their harvest can seem quite distant from our own mid-Atlantic environment, one Jewish Maryland farmer is bringing it all closer to home.

A Pikesville native and father of two, Scott Hertzberg is an organic vegetable farmer who lives with his wife, Tanya Tolchin, in the Prince George’s County seat of Upper Marlboro. Hertzberg, 47, is bringing some of the best organic Israeli olive oil here as part of his Israeli Harvest venture.

Hertzberg launched Israeli Harvest six years ago as a way of building on his personal connection to the Jewish state while also seeking to create a sustainable small business.

“Right now, the business is mostly paying for my Hebrew lessons and my subscription to a Hebrew language newspaper,” he says. “Eventually though, I aspire for it to help support our family and even to create something my kids could inherit one day.”

The olive harvest in Israel takes place in November every other year. In traditional Arab culture, farmers lay tarps on the ground and beat the trees with long sticks to make the fruit fall. Modern operations have tractor-mounted shaking machines that vibrate the fruit off the tree.

Olives

Olives (Photo by Joshua Rosenstein)

However they are harvested, the olive harvest generally wraps up by the end of the month, close to the oil-centric holiday of Chanukah. In terms of the agricultural cycles of ancient Israel, Chanukah would coincide with the final pressings of the year’s harvest and can be viewed as the last harvest festival of the season.

Hertzberg’s business model has gone through some changes over the past few years, but currently he sells wholesale to stores in the Washington, D.C., area and through synagogue gift shops, as well as at events such as Beth Tfiloh Synagogue’s recent gift bazaar.

While private consumers can order a two-liter tin of his organic oil through Israeli Harvest’s website, Hertzberg says his primary focus is on the wholesale market. He hopes to expand the network of stores and institutions that carry his products and eventually be picked up by a distributor.

While importing Israeli products to the United States is not a new concept, the vast majority of imported products are produced by the largest and most industrialized of Israeli operations. Israeli agriculture is generally known for aggressive industrial and bio-tech practices, as well as a general lack of concern for environmental or ethical considerations. But according to Hertzberg, this is changing fast.

“There is a real food revolution going on in Israel these days,” he says. “Just like in the States, we are starting to see a lot more artisanal producers — small, sustainable farms with specialty products and boutique wineries.”

Unfortunately for American consumers, “there’s a gap in the market,” Hertzberg says. “Only the largest producers can afford to pay the hefty fees associated with exporting their products.”

Israeli Harvest aspires to fill that gap by creating a more direct connection between smaller scale producers and the American market.

Israeli Harvest olive oil

Israeli Harvest olive oil (Photo by Joshua Rosenstein)

Israeli Harvest oils come from Makurah, a midsize organic farm in the Carmel Mountains region operated by Guy and Orna Rilov. Guy Rilov inherited the farm, which is home to an olive grove more than 1,000 years old, from his parents. It is known as one of the pioneers of the Israeli organic food movement. The Rilovs grow citrus, lychee and avocado along with several varieties of olives.

Rilov practices an ancient style of olive cultivation known as the Ba’al method, in which trees are not irrigated. The idea is that when you practice that form of agriculture, your harvest is in the hands of the ancient Canaanite god Ba’al.

Most olives these days are planted more densely and receive lots of irrigation, which Hertzberg says significantly dilutes the flavor and the antioxidant content of the oils produced.

Another unique element to Hertzberg’s products is that he is selling single-varietal oils. Along with Courtina and Kalamata, he currently offers the Souri variety, an ancient heirloom type of olive originating in the Galilee. The oil is rich and a little spicy with layers of flavor and a mild bitterness. Hertzberg explains that the spiciness is due to the fresh-pressed nature of the product, and the bitterness comes from the anti-oxidants.

While Makurah oils are probably too expensive — and too delicious — to burn in a menorah, dipping some hearty bread or drizzling them on a crunchy fall salad really brings the authentic taste of Chanukah to the table.

For information, visit israeliharvest.com or call 301-237-7538.

Top photo: Scott Hertzberg of Israeli Harvest recently sold his olive oil at Beth Tfiloh Congregation’s gift bazaar. (Photo by Joshua Rosenstein)

Joshua Rosenstein is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.

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