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Olive Harvesting and Tree Care for Oil Production

AlfA01

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Some guys on here had asked me to do a write-up on Olive trees, to include, harvesting, care, pruning, and oil production. I wasn’t sure which parts to include or provide the most information on, so I guess I’ll just go ahead and include all of it from the start until today. I apologize for the length in advance. For those of you that like a read, it should be right up your alley. I'll do the thread in multiple posts and will probably make it pretty picture intensive...you guys like pics, right? I'll try to include as many of my own pics as possible, but I want to say thanks to Google in advance in case I need to "borrow" a pic or two. Feel free to ask any questions you guys have. I really don't mind tailoring the info to what folks are curious about. This write-up will be saw, OPE and firewood related also...

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“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food” – Hippocrates
Where to start? Well, the beginning of my olive tree and olive oil experiences would be the easiest. After being stationed in Greece with the US Air Force, I started buying olive oil at a consumer level at the supermarkets in Athens. I had no idea about the differences in oil, other than what the labels told me. They were labeled in every shape and fashion, including Spartan helmets for oils that came from Sparta and other regional icons adorning the bottles. Extra Virgin, Virgin, Hot Pressed, Cold Pressed…. what did all these catchy marketing words mean that were on the labels? Just like walking into an OPE dealer, one could easily get lost with all the options available if they had no prior experience. At this point, I had no idea of the olive secrets Greece would reveal to me. I had no idea there was a whole other world of olive oil production, oil trade and oil usage and consumption just waiting to be discovered. I had no idea about different olive types and their impact on the oil’s quality, color and taste. I had no idea how quality varied year to year and how the sea, mountains and soil attributed to the acidity, aroma and bitterness of taste. I had no idea that trees produced in cycles, and I had no idea what it took to squeeze out this green liquid gold.

I had always been curious about olives and oil production, so I spent a lot of time just checking the fields as I drove by. I didn’t know anyone that had trees, and the people I encountered had olive groves in villages far away from where I lived. Many times, I found myself trying to envision how the olives were transformed into oil. Coming from a farming background, this really piqued my curiosity. I saw some of the old round stone wheels that were used in pre-electricity days for pressing olives into oil, but modern techniques were still a mystery to me.

Fast forward about 5-years and we find ourselves in an abandoned property that belonged to my wife’s family on the island of Evia. We had moved there to protect the property from vandals and thieves. The property had around 40 mature olive trees of various ages. Some were huge and severely overgrown, and others were smaller and had varying leaf shapes and bark differences. So much going on there and I had no idea where I was going to learn everything I desired to know about olives and the trees that grow them.

I found myself one day standing in front of a giant Koroneiki (Crown) olive tree, MS170 in hand and ready to do some damage. Yet, I had no fricking clue where to start. Should I cut that limb? Or, that one? What if I screw it up? Will the tree suffer? How long will it take to grow back? Will the tree still make olives if I go to whacking it apart? I decided to cut a couple of limbs that were just hanging over a building and leave the rest until I got some advice.

A local farmer and landowner came one day and gave me some tips and advice. He told me where to cut and how to identify which limbs were useful for production and which ones were degrading the tree’s ability to produce to full potential. That was my first experience in care and maintenance of the olive tree.

Fast forward another 5-years and here we are in 2020. The year’s harvest is in the books and we are enjoying the bounty of a wonderful harvest year. We averaged a 5:1 ratio of olives to oil, an average acidity of 0.5% and around 100 gallons of Extra Virgin green gold in our storage shed. What does acidity mean and what determines the olive to oil ratio? We’ll get to that, but first some facts and stats of Greek olive oil production and distribution.

Facts of Greek Olive Oil Production
Greece produces nearly 17% of the world’s overall olive oil production. It’s third only to Spain and Italy and is the leader in production of Extra Virgin oil--80% of all Greek oil is Extra Virgin. Greece has over 100 million fruiting olive trees that produce 350,000 metric tons of oil, which generates 1.4 billion Euros in annual revenue.

Greeks consume an average of 16 kilos (32 pounds) of oil per year, per person. Even with highest consumption rate for olive oil in the world, Greece still leads all other countries for exportation of Extra Virgin Olive Oil.

At this point you may be saying, “I don’t see Greek olive oil in the supermarket”. But you do. Major companies like Bertolli buy Greek olive oil and blend with their own and resell it under their label. Most olive produced in Greece is exported in bulk and bottled at other locations. Why? Well, there are several reasons. Probably the most prevalent is that Greek farms are very small and scattered, so getting the oil from the farms to the olive presses is primarily done with traditional techniques. Most of the harvesting in my area is accomplished manually by the farm owners. Typically, small farmers are not involved with exportation or sales. They give a portion of their harvest to the olive press in exchange for producing their oil. The olive press will collect their oil and sell to larger companies that will then market to the oil to foreign buyers. Additionally, Greece’s geography is attributed to making a very high-quality oil yet is difficult for harvesting due to mountainous growing areas. In fact, Greece is 80% mountainous. Many of the areas that grow olives are slopes where it is difficult for machinery to operate, so care, harvesting and transport is primarily accomplished by manual labor.

Olive groves in Crete
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Olive groves at the mountainous foothills of Evia Island
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AlfA01

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Continued...

"And I will give you a tree," said the goddess Athena, striking the rock with her spear. An olive tree sprang up. "Its fruit will feed you, its leaves will give you shade, and its wood provide fuel."

Harvesting Techniques and Equipment

Borrowed pic of harvester using a bamboo verga.
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As I said in the last paragraph, manual labor is the most widely used harvesting and care method in Greece for producing oil, especially in isolated areas where families harvest and press for personal consumption. When we first started harvesting olives, we worked manually and only used small top-handle chainsaws to trim limbs to aid in harvesting. One method that is used to get the olives off the trees is the verga, which is a long stick between 2-3 meters, made from young mulberry and cedar or other trees that grow long and straight limbs that are flexible and strong. These sticks are skinned and dried over fire, which makes them even stronger, yet still flexible. In more recent times, bamboo canes have also been used for harvesting due to their lightweight and flexibility. Bamboo canes are also less likely to damage the young producing limbs of the olive trees. The object of the verga is to flog the olive from the tree with as little damage done to the tree as possible. One important note on the use of sticks to harvest is that one should never hit into the crotch of smaller limbs, as they will easily snap. Instead it is better to hit from the outside forcing the outward extending limbs against the main branch where the blow is still effective for removing the olives yet provides buffering for the more fragile limbs.

Use of sticks to harvest olives dates to 2000 B.C. in Crete where artifacts of olive harvesting and processing have been discovered.

Ancient Greek pottery showing harvesters using vergas
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Harvesting olives isn’t just a laborious task, it is a deeply rooted tradition and strong part of Greek culture. Often there are stories told between the noise of sticks hitting the limbs, or the sound of a chainsaw trimming branches to make the olives easier to harvest. People share news, talk about their kids and grandkids and even share a dirty joke or two to make the time pass.

Today, most people in my area practice very similar methods of harvesting with the only variance being whether they choose to use OPE for the harvest. There is also a cost-to-benefit analysis done by most people according to how many olives they have to harvest, where the smaller farmers won’t justify purchasing a harvester as it would cost more than the oil they can produce using it. Most people use their vergas and olive mats or tarps to catch the falling olives. In the old days they didn’t have mats and would have to collect the olives from the bare ground. This was a painstaking process, due to the Greece’s rough terrain and thorny vegetation. Mats and tarps make collecting the olives much easier. We use them to pile the olives after they are removed from the tree. There is a lot of debris from the tree mixed with the olives such as broken limbs, leaves, sawdust and old dry olives.

Cleaning the olives before putting them in sacks for transport and storage is an important process for multiple reasons. In my area this mostly done manually, so using gloves is not a modern-day option—it’s a must to protect against thorns and the occasional biting critter. Having leaves inside the sacks with the olives creates heat, which raises the acidity of the final oil. Acidity is not necessarily bad, especially if you like a sweeter oil; however, an acidity over 0.8% is not Extra Virgin. That is the point where the oil becomes Virgin. Wood and bark tend to make the oil more bitter, but don’t have a real effect on the acidity. We take the time to remove as many leaves, sawdust and debris as possible in the field, so our oil makes the Extra Virgin cut. The olive press has cleaning systems, but they aren’t fool proof. We’ll talk more about that later.

Olives with leaves in crates ready to be pressed.
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During unseasonably hot conditions, its necessary to avoid heat at all costs, so we use open crates to temporarily store the olives instead of sacks. This helps prevent the olives from reaching the fermenting stage prior to pressing. This past season was unseasonably warm, so we found ourselves also going to the olive press more often, as it was impossible to keep the olives cool enough in storage. Normally, we transport the olives to the press every 4-days (also a requirement of Extra Virgin), whereas this past year we went on average of every two days. Also, unseasonably hot conditions keeps those pesky venomous reptiles around, which some find the rocky hillsides that host olive groves as suitable homes.
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Some people that have larger olive groves use sorting tables. This is a simple device with folding legs that allows the farmers to throw the olives on top of a grate system that promotes the leaves and debris falling through to the ground, while the olives are funneled into sacks. These can be a huge time saver for larger olives especially. I don’t use one as about 60% of my olive harvest consists of the Korneiki (Crown) olive variety, which is very small and often gets caught in the grates or falls through with the leaves and twigs.

The saws: top handle chainsaws and pole saws are my saws of choice for everything olive harvesting related. Using big saws isn’t an option, as the consumption is too high, the maneuverability is limited, and the size of the branches don't justify a big saw. Big saws have a place in olive care and upkeep, but we'll talk more about that later. In previous years I’ve used an MS170, the T425 Husqy, the Dolmar 3410 and the MS193t. I sold the MS170 and the T425. I’m happy with the Dolmar setup as a read handle and the MS193 as a pruning saw. I use the 193 in the tree and the Dolmar cutting up limbs that are on the ground. It’s a nice little combo for my cutting style. Yes, they are/were all modded in some way, shape or form. I also use the KM131R Kombi as a pole saw and an olive harvester. Maybe one day I’ll add a second powerhead, so I don’t have to change the attachments so often in the field.

My T425 in one of the largest trees I have to harvest.
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Harvesters are a dandy option for the olive farmer. In fact, there are many options out there. There are battery operated harvesters, ones that run on generators, others that run on air and those that are self-contained powerheads like the KM131R. The actual harvester heads vary in the mechanical apparatuses and their movement that is used to free the olives from the tree. Some have spinning tines, while others look like two rakes slapping each other. I use the Kombi unit which is like two rakes with a piston in the middle that causes lateral movement. This allows you to swat the olives off the tree, and also slip the tines around limbs and cause a vibration to be sent down the branch which also sends the olives flying.

I'm only allowed five pics per post so I will include some more below in another post.
 
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AlfA01

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This is awesome Dan - I'm really enjoying your insights and adventures so far, and pictures of the Greek countryside are always great.

Good thread!:clapclap:

Love this. Better than The Food Network.

I never knew I cared so much about olives and olive oil. I'm in.

Great stuff Dan! Keep it coming. Thanks for sharing.

Thanks fellas. More to come. I'm writing up the part on harvesting techniques right now with a touch of history.
 

Philbert

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Thanks for posting this stuff. I am a poorly educated consumer of olive oil, and use it mostly for cooking. I understand that it can be like wine, with different uses for different varieties and different grades.

But I am also interested in the tree stuff!

Philbert
 

AlfA01

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Excellent thread Dan, very interesting! [emoji106]

Awesome info, I love learning new things, can’t wait till next post!

Looking forward to the second half ! Thanks for the detailed info. Its always great to learn new things and about how diversified people are.

Very interesting Dan!

Thanks for posting this stuff. I am a poorly educated consumer of olive oil, and use it mostly for cooking. I understand that it can be like wine, with different uses for different varieties and different grades.

But I am also interested in the tree stuff!

Philbert

Good stuff Dan, very interesting.

Thanks fellas. Glad you guys are enjoying it. I'm having a good time writing and posting as well. I've felt bad that I haven't contributed much to the forum lately, so this is a good start.

Post II will be online in a few.
 

AlfA01

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Other equipment pics...
My KM 131R Kombi with harvester attachment in the field.
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My little jeep and trailer...my primary method of transporting equipment and the harvest.
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Olive harvester with rake style head.
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Cleaning table for sorting olives from the leaves and debris.
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Shakere style poweredhead
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AlfA01

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Other harvesters. These tend to work great on smaller trees that can be shaken from the trunk.
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These work similar to what a combine would and are also more effective on smaller trees.
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Generator operated electric motor type with spinning heads.
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RI Chevy

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Is there any truth to the rumor that Italian mafia is running the olive oil industry?
 
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