Gloom, austerity, crisis: Spain is desperate to turn its fortunes around. Channel 4 News reports from Andalucia, where olive growers hope booming exports can help lead the country back to recovery.
It makes for an idyllic scene: the undulating hills, the olive groves stretching far into the horizon, their stubby trees laden with plump fruit. But here, in the shimmering heat of an Andalucian autumn, it is easy to forget that this is a country in the grip of deep economic crisis, writes Felicity Spector.
In the north, austerity has meant mass protests and threats of independence. But in the poorer south, where unemployment has soared above 30 per cent, there is hope: that the agricultural riches which bless this region could offer a way out.
"Not everything here is bad. Some powerful sectors are helping the country get out of this crisis, and the food industry is leading the way." Jose Manuel Escrig is deputy director of trade association Olives from Spain, and he is on a mission to promote the fruit to markets around the world.
Amid the gloom, it is a real source of pride: the vast majority of the world's olives come from Spain, which exports around 60 per cent of its crop in trade worth hundreds of millions of euros a year.
Dozens of family-owned farms dot the Andalucian countryside. One of the biggest is Angel Camachio Alimentacion, with several thousand hectares spread over three separate farms, growing olives destined for the table, rather than the more lucrative oil. This is the volume, rather than the luxury end of the market.
At the grand Hacienda el Fontanal, we are met by the energetic owner, Carlos Camachio, whose grandfather started the business in 1897. It is still harvest time, with workers carefully picking olives by hand: anything that gets bruised or damaged cannot be used.
It is too early to tell, he admits, whether the crop has been damaged by this year's severe drought. There is talk of wholesale prices doubling, but as yet the cheaper table olive has been relatively stable, avoiding the sharp fluctuations which speculators have inflicted on the volatile olive oil market.
Old traditions, new ideas
Everything here is done on site: once picked, the olives must be carefully washed, and left to ferment for days to remove the bitterness. They are sent through size and quality controls, some are pitted, others sliced, or left whole, then packed, labelled and branded.
It is big business too: the company now produces around 50 millon kilos a year, and exports almost a third, generating vitally needed income, as well as providing jobs.
Clambering in the branches above us is Jose, who has worked at Camachio for more than 30 years, like his father before him. The job has not changed much, he says: "The traditions are the same, although security for workers has improved."
However, he insists, the important thing is to have a job at all. And although the harvest is highly seasonal, his long association with the firm means he is able to pick up other jobs out of season, from tending the trees to helping with processing work.
In this hard-pressed area, where tourism is the other major employer, agricultural jobs remain a vital source of employment and income: harvesting the olives provides some 10 million days of work a year.
Inevitably, of course, the relentless march of innovation could threaten that: under intense pressure to cut costs and maintain their competitiveness in international markets, olive firms are keen to invest in new technology.
"Mechanisation might mean more jobs are lost," admits Alejandro Martinez from Olives from Spain, "or it might just mean new kinds of jobs are created. We can't stay just growing food in the old way, we need to move on, and get greater returns for investment."
Carlos Camachio, who has created a small museum at the Hacienda filled with olive-related paraphernalia from decades past, seems equally animated about the latest innovations, proudly describing the new bio-energy source from cast off olive stones.
We can't just stay growing food in the old way, we need to move on. Alejandro Martinez, Olives from Spain
"We don't waste anything. The stones are dried and then used to power the machines in the factory. We use a lot of hot water, for example, and ninety per cent of the energy now comes from the olive stones," he explains.
It is the kind of technological advance which Spain is also beginning to export abroad - another glimmer of hope from the food industry. But could it really offer a way through the crisis? Exports of Spanish goods have risen by some 55 million euros over the last three years, resisting the most determined competition from emerging markets.
The alternatives, for Spain, are distinctly unattractive: without a concerted drive to promote trade abroad, economists fear the only other option is "a catastrophic euro exit, or accepting decades of deindustrialisation, depopulation and decline".
That is a lot of pressure on the humble olive. But outside, where the scorched ground is dappled with the shadow of olive leaves, the pickers are staying hard at work, getting the most out of the dying days of this year's harvest.
Jose Manuel Escrig, for one, is quietly optimistic. "It's great to be a world leader in something", he insists. "Our producers are very proud of our olives, and we can't say that about many things, at the moment."