How to harvest olives

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by Mike

The harvesting goes like this: We make a pass “ramassaying” (rammasser = to gather) loose olives that have already fallen from the tree and are waiting on the ground between blades of grass. We theoretically collect every olive we see because even the nastiest, half-rotten olive flesh can be separated from its pure oil. This job is no fun, it’s low work, squatting or bending at the waist. We can’t wear gloves because we need the dexterity, so we end up really dirty from scraping up dirt with our fingernails, picking up rotting olives that are pink or accidentally picking up goat shit (as Azure did) which inconveniently looks a lot like small olives. Our fingers get cold and it’s not the most satisfying work. One person working all day might fill a half a caisse (crate) – that translates to about 1 liter of olive oil. (So one liter of organic olive oil is worth a day of labor – how much would you pay?)

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After the ramassaying is done, we lay out large, rectangular nylon nets under the branches. It takes at least four nets to cover the area where the olives could fall or fly when being harvested and since the entire orchard is on a terraced hillside we have to climb up and down little walls constantly. Each net needs to be untangled from branches and thorns that were caught the last time the net was used, then the net is layed out flat, overlapping the next net by about a foot. We use rocks to keep the nets down, but generally I accidentally pull up a corner or an edge with my shoe every fucking time I walk across one. I probably spend as much time resetting nets as I do accomplishing anything else. Whenever we walk on nets – which is most of the day – we have to watch carefully where we step to not mash olives.

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Once the nets are set Claude goes up in the tree to prune the branches that are too high to reach. The full branches drop onto the nets, then someone saws the big branches into smaller ones. The large pieces are used for firewood. The small branches have olives on them, so another person holds the branch in their left hand and uses a stick in their right to whip the branch (“like it was mean to you”) and knock all the olives loose. We do this standing on the nets. The emptied leafy branches are piled off the nets, and they’ll be fed to the goats. I like this job because it’s satisfying to watch a bunch of olives go flying after you’ve taken a whack, but usually other people get to do this.

Click here to see a video of me using The Machine
In the meantime, I usually walk around with something we call “The Machine,” which is basically a long extension pole at the end of which is a pair of rakes that look like a mouth. The whole thing operates on pneumatic pressure and when I use it I have to switch on the motor. The motor makes an awful noise and kinda ruins the quiet valley for a while. Once I’ve swtiched it on, I put the mouth of The Machine in some on the tree and when I pull the trigger, the mouth shake vigorously, opening and closing dozens of times a second, and the olives explode from the tree. I run the mouth from the top of a branch to the bottom. I start outside the tree, walking around underneath and getting all the low olives. I often have to go back to places that I’ve already done because from other angles I can see what I missed. It’s not unlike washing new Pella windows, for those of you in the know. After I’ve done all the low branches I extend the pole to do the high ones. I try to stand right under the branches I’m working on because it’s easier on my body to hold the pole upright, but that means that when I pull the trigger the olives rain down on me. The first day I was looking up and I got a couple in the eye, but I’m smarter now. I still get them in my shirt, my hood, up my sleeves like an ace, in my pockets, down my pants like a two. Olives everywhere.

After I’ve gone around the outside and Claude has cut the branches, I go up into the tree and use The Machine from inside. We have harnesses that we can clip to branches. I like going into the trees, I love climbing high, but you have to be careful because any new growth isn’t solid to stand on. Claude says it’s not part of the tree. As I wrote in another post, resting in the trees is the best. When you look up through the leaves they all look different colors from the sun or the reflection of the sky – they can look dark green or pink or yellow or silver. Sometimes the wind sways the tree and you sway with it. Il faut.

Gauling olives
The next job is Azure’s, she basically does the quality control with a 12-foot bamboo pole. She does the same thing I do, walking around the outside then ascending into the tree, but she goes after the individual olives (and sometimes bunches) I’ve missed, whacking the branches with the pole. She also uses the harness and for her being in the trees is a throwback to what she loved doing as a kid. It’s her favorite thing on a farm. The other day we had a break and I was occupied with taking some pictures, so she went and wandered and sat in a tree for a while.

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After Azure’s finished with the pole, the nets can be lifted. One person takes each end of the long net and rolls all the olives to the middle. We lift the heavy net, then put as many of the olives in a crate as will fit. We pick out all the small branches and leaves that we can pick quickly, it’ll save us time later. One good tree drops about 5 crates of olives which make about 10 liters of oil. After the nets have been emptied we pick them up and move them to new trees where the ground has already been ramassayed.

These jobs all take place under a number of neighboring trees – somebody will be ramassaying at one tree while Claude is sawing branches and I’m using The Machine at another and Azure is doing QC on a third. However, some days – like today – we’ll just ramassay all day. Those days are long and frustrating.

All the crates from the day are brought to a machine that sorts the olives by size while simultaneously blowing all the leaves into a bag. We dump a crate in the top then slowly push the olives into the machine. They roll down, then onto a series of springs that run as a conveyor belt. The springs get stretched slightly further apart as the olive is pulled along, so the small ones drop through first. Someone has to be over the springs to grab any little rocks or leaves that have gotten through. This is loud, hypnotizing work. When the small, medium and large olives are dropped through the springs they go into cases, and when a case fills in the middle of sorting you have to put a stopper in the pipe, switch out the cases, then unstop the pipe. If any leaves get through you have to either pick them out or – if there’s too many – put the crate through another time.

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Once the olives are sorted for size by machine, we sort them for their use by hand. We dump a case on a table and pick – one by one – which are good and which are bad. This is a time we sit and talk or listen to music inside, it’s a good evening task. I like doing the sorting but Azure doesn’t – it’s tedious, repetitive work. But Azure is good at it, she makes quick decisions where I take too long trying to figure out if one olive is good or bad. My strategy is to pick out all the obviously bad ones then anguish over the rest. Azure takes aside a little handful and sorts them all, then moves on to the next handful. The bad ones (the ugly ones) are for oil. The oil is edible immediately once it’s separated from the flesh, you can eat it right off the wheel (we’ll tell you all about this in another post). The prettier olives are for olive paste (like tapenade, but NOT the same), and the absolute best large olives are for the table, which means they’ll be sold whole in bags of salt water. To make the olive paste and table olives edible they have to be soaked in saltwater for four months.

On the farm there’s a lot of moving of things. A branch is cut, the branch is sawed, the branch is whacked then it’s tossed to the edge of the net, then the branches are moved near the goats then into the barn. When I think of this farm in the future, I’ll think of moving crates. An empty crate is taken to the nets, then filled with olives. Then it’s carried over terraces and up hills to the house. It’s loaded into the car, driven to the other property, unloaded out of the car, then it’s carried to the sorter. The crate is then dumped and refilled with sorted olives. Then the crate is carried back out to the car, loaded into the car, driven back to Claude’s, unloaded out of the car, then carried to the dining room table where we sort. The case is dumped on the table, then refilled with sorted olives, then it’s loaded back in the car, driven up the hill and unloaded again. Then it’s carried to the mill where the olives are dumped, and the journey is finally done when the olives are crushed.

11 Comments

Filed under Travel

11 responses to “How to harvest olives

  1. I will never question the cost of olive oil again!

  2. Hi Folks,

    I live in an apartment complex that is repleat with Olive trees; they are ripening now (yeah – March, in Lancaster, the high desert of California – weird, eh?), and I’m curious as to how to press the oil. You mention a future post about “the wheel” – have you put that up yet? I’d love to find out more about it.

    -Mark

  3. Raven

    Absolutely fun to read and packed with information not found elsewhere.
    I live in Tucson AZ and there are many olive trees I have been anxious to harvest of fruit. I just can’t stand any potential food wasted
    I am looking forward to your next post.
    Thanks.
    Raven

  4. Ken

    Great post. I am considering emmigrating to Portugal and Olives will be a staple on the property.

    • Ian

      In Australia we harvest olive trees using large machines. trees are harvested at a rate of 150 to 200 trees per hour ( up to 4 and 5 tonnes of olives per hour ) and processed through large on farm factories. We look for labour from march until july
      Regards,
      Ian
      0427879125

  5. Anonymous

    Why do you feel the need to swear in your blog? Come on…

  6. Moose

    My first time picking olives this year by contract. I’m looking for a way to harvest my tress faster than what I am. Any tips advice

  7. Anonymous

    Try surgical gloves, they allow you the fine dexterity you need to pick the olives and keep you clean too.

  8. Nice, interesting article which could lose the cuss words!

  9. John

    loved your story, what a great experience and fantastic description. I felt like i was there. well done.

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