Olive Oil Harvesting

//Olive Oil Harvesting

Olive Oil Harvesting

2023-06-21T06:42:13-07:00 June 21st, 2023|News|

By J Capone, Agriculture and Environmental Education, ’24

It was a warm Saturday morning in November when Sam rounded the corner and asked if I wanted to join the harvest. He looked like a laureate in the light, with a crown of olive branches placed upon his wide-brimmed field hat. We were taking Intro to Sustainable Agriculture together, and I had heard how he wanted to do a community olive harvest this weekend at the Student Farm, a 23 acre agriculture program at UC Davis. I was next door when I came across him and his friends talking around a field bin, strategizing the day forthcoming. Later, I would join him in the orchard, amazed at the crowd of people collected, the energy exuding from them as joyous as a traditional field harvest. 

“It’s crazy,” he told me “that they were just going to let the olives rot on the tree instead of doing something with them”. 

He had learned through a friend that the olive grove at the Student Farm would not be harvested this season. There was simply not enough manpower. Within a week, he had organized a team effort and convinced the head of the Student Farm to let him and his friends hand-pick as many olives as they could and bring them to a community milling project outside of Livermore, CA. One had a truck, another brought music and blankets, and yet another brought more friends until this manual labor event seemed more like a block party, with clean, empty, dark wine bottles collected to later fill up with the products of their harvest. 

Sam quickly gave me the safety rundown – and Tim gave me the waiver to sign, pinky promising to not sue if my head gets chopped off in the process. The ground under the grove was littered with ankle-splintering holes, dug by ground squirrels to nest close to a fallen food source. I carefully stepped my way to a tree, where a nice girl introduced herself and showed me the strategy for harvesting the olives – taking a big stick, usually with a rake attached to the end of it, and smacking the hell out of the branches, pushing and pulling to entice the tree to release some of her swollen fruit. Together we took turns bashing, raking, holding, and scrubbing until the tarp under us was littered with ripe, firm, green olives. We each grabbed two ends and brought our bounty over to the sorting groups, who cheered as we deposited our load into piles. 

I sat down in one of the circles, and a neighbor showed me exactly how they picked which olives were good and could be pressed and milled, and which were bad and would spoil the batch. Crouched on my feet, I scooped up a handful and admired the pale farina clouding the surface of the fruit. Slowly, I turned it around in my hand, looking for pits or worms or the dreaded Olive Fruit Fly, before tossing it in the “Good” basket. Around me, the fellow harvesters who had been doing this for hours already would scoop up a handful while chatting, roll it around in their palms as they scanned, and quickly made their selection of good and bad fruits, all while singing, chatting, and joking around while the music played. Clearly, there was a rhythm I had to learn. 

In case you were ever interested in the selection process for these olives, here’s what you looked for: a uniform color on a solid, firm skin, no holes or lesions, and especially no scales or larvae. Olives naturally had small pits and divots, but the key difference was the indication of something burrowing into or out of the flesh and skin of the fruit.  The Olive Fruit Fly, an invasive pest that destroys the olive crop in this way, would spoil the batch if too many were detected. Their life cycle depends on laying their eggs in forgotten, fallen crops, and we had to be careful to properly dispose of rejected fruits lest we exacerbate the problem in next year’s harvest.

If we hadn’t collected these olives – even though we left many on the trees – the ground would be littered with rotting olives, a useful food source for pesky pests and other critters on the student farm. It would also be a habitat for insects, like the Olive Fruit Fly, and could bolster their population the following year, even spreading to and worsening the situation on neighboring farms. We made sure all of the soft, scarred, and unsavory olives made their way into the compost pile, so they could be repurposed as agricultural waste into food for next season’s crops. 

As I got into the groove of things, another neighbor made a joke about working under the warm sun. “I can feel my Greek ancestors frowning at me, going ‘We left for America so you wouldn’t be doing farmwork!’” The group laughed at his joke, but it had me thinking about my own connections to the olives, how this group of harvesters made me feel more connected to my ancestors than any other part of modern life. 

Instead, olive tree growers in the south Mediterranean have their own pest problems to worry about. A new virus, called xyzella fastidiosa, has infected thousands of olive trees in Italy and has ravaged orchards [3]. With no natural defense against the introduced pathogen, farmers are having to pull every trick out of their toolbox to protect their trees before it totally destroys the industry, or spreads to any neighboring countries. An already parched basin, Italy and other olive-producing countries have faced drought and intense heat as climate change spreads, altering the global weather patterns. Coupled with these pre-existing climate troubles with the desertification of the Mediterranean, the olive industry, which has flourished for thousands of years in the fertile valleys of southern Europe, is on the ropes. 

As the day stretched on, we all grew hungry and tired under the warm sun, standing up to stretch and daring each other to eat the tempting fruit we were sorting under our fingers. Unfortunately, uncured olives like the ones we were handling taste extremely bitter, and the offensive taste tends to linger in one’s mouth. By the time the sun started setting, we had almost filled the entirety of the truck bed up with gorgeous, colorful olives, ranging from candy apple green to a wine-dark skin. We had only harvested from 6 of the 28 trees in the grove, with not enough people or time to attack the entire orchard in the limited sunlight. Sam and Tim rounded up the last buckets, as everyone helped fold up tarps, put away supplies, and swapped photos taken of the harvest. The next day, Sam and Tim would drive down to the Olivina, an olive orchard and mill in Livermore, that participated in a once-yearly Community Milling Day, where we could get our olives milled for free. In order to make the freshest extra virgin olive oil, we had to get these picked olives milled as quickly as possible, within 24 hours. Promises were made to meet back up in a week, where a taste-testing party with bread would be provided at the Domes. 

At the end of the day, I brought my hands up to my face and inhaled deeply at the fresh, earthy smell of olives still dusting my hands, the farina settled and coating the crevices of my hands and nail beds. Within a week, I was meeting up with Sam and Tim again, and finally getting my own bottle of this liquid gold. A total of 470 lbs of olives were harvested, resulting in 10 gallons of oil to distribute. Gathered around the tasting table, I nabbed some bread and took a dunk in the oil. Instead of a mellow flavor most grocery store oils held, this tasted like a kick in the teeth, the peppery notes coating my mouth and tingling on the way down. Paired with bread and balsamic, or added into a focaccia recipe, this hand-harvested olive oil tasted like satisfaction and a hard day’s sweat under the sun, with the benefit of caring for the land and next year’s crop.