… is OEL being produced?
The olive harvest then and now
For five years now, OEL has responsibly dedicated itself to the production and marketing of one of humanity’s oldest agricultural products. Olives have been cultivated and processed into olive oil since 4000 BC. Historical finds on Crete prove this impressively. These finds on Crete also prove that the farmers of that time are due special respect because they were the first to do the sweaty job of cultivating wild olive trees and planting them in groves.
Today, it is estimated that over 1000 known varieties of olives are cultivated for the production of olive oil and table olives. Around the globe, 8.6 million hectares are now used for olives and the olive harvest. For the worldwide production of all kinds of olive oils, around 17.3 million tons of olives are processed annually at harvest time in over 30 countries.
How does OEL actually manage the olive harvest?
The OEL brand stands for 100% pure, self-produced, organic Koroneiki extra virgin olive oil. OEL is “self-produced” in two ways. First, our organic Koroneiki olives grow and thrive exclusively on organically certified trees on our own land in Meligalas, Kalamata, and Messenia in Greece. Second, we carefully harvest our olives by hand.
The olive harvest, which takes place in the Messenia region in November and December each year, is a complex, planning-intensive, and labor-intensive process. At harvest time, the days begin with the rising of the sun and end with the setting. But when is the optimal time for the olive harvest? Throughout the year, the developing degree of ripeness of the olives is observed in order to ultimately achieve the best-tasting olive oil. An olive’s degree of ripeness can be discerned from its size, skin tension, and color. In our case, the color development turns the young green fruits into dark purple olives. Since olive trees usually bear stronger and weaker fruit on alternating years, one first conducts a kind of stock take where one works from here to there on trees bearing strong fruit. As soon as all olive harvest workers have agreed on a daily schedule, the up to 50-meter-long nets are spread out under the trees. These fine-meshed nets catch the scattered olives and prevent them from simply falling to the ground.
Once the nets are correctly placed, the different work areas are divided. A harvest worker climbs into the olive treetops with a chainsaw and saws very strongly bearing branches off the tree. Because the olive, as mentioned above, bears fruit every two years, such rows of branches can be sawn off without hesitation. If not, they would barely contribute to the next olive harvest and, anyway, they will grow back in two years. Appropriate tree pruning, which is done in parallel with harvesting, is also part of the job of those who work with the chainsaw. Such cuts give the olive tree the right growth signals, while allowing good ventilation and maximizing light penetration. The tree needs this light penetration so that the olives develop the right degree of ripeness over the year and meet all requirements at harvest time.
Another harvest helper works on the so-called vibrating machine. This motorized vibrating belt rotates rollers with rubber nubs at several thousand revolutions per minute and is immensely important for the olive harvest. The rows of branches that have already been sawn off are placed around the vibrating machine by other harvest workers so that the person working there can take the branches and rub them over the vibrating belt. The machine brushes the olives from the branch with its immensely fast rotating nubs and is thus a targeted method for harvesting effectively. It is important that the vibrating machine is placed on the previously laid out nets, otherwise the olives would fall onto areas of the ground that are not covered with nets.
The remaining harvest workers use the so-called rakes in the most strenuous work of the olive harvest. These rakes are plastic handles, up to 4m long, that end in five prongs. With these rakes, the harvest workers roam through the trees and wave the olives onto the net-covered ground. Contrary to what is expected, olives are seldom picked. These rakes come in a wide variety of lengths - for the simple reason that there are larger and smaller trees to be harvested and sometimes you may even have to climb into the treetops because otherwise you won't harvest all of the olives.
When an olive tree is completely harvested, the nets, now covered with plenty of olives, are pulled to the next tree and then spread out there. Several hundred kilograms of olives can be harvested from one tree during the olive harvest, so the harvest nets quickly acquire an immense weight. For this reason, they are emptied regularly. But before that happens, the nets have to be cleaned. This means that the olives are separated from smaller branches, most of the leaves, and other vegetable debris. Normal hooks are used for this. Once the net has been “cleaned”, the olives are placed in linen harvest bags. These bags can then weigh up to 65 kilograms each.
And these processes are then repeated throughout the day. We harvest the olives from the first to the last ray of sunshine.
Does the olive harvest have to be done by hand?
In our case, the handwork is the crucial point. OEL is a strictly certified organic product. Although there have been large gaps in the actual "ORGANIC" label over time, all of our land maintenance and harvesting tasks are done by hand. The control of weeds, the cutting of the trees, the fertilization of the soil, the painting of the tree trunks with lime paint, and the actual harvesting of the olives is done by hand at OEL as the only permitted method.
In industrialized agriculture, due to the striving for efficiency during the olive harvest, competition, time pressure, falling prices, and immense costs, the decision is often made to operate super-intensive cultivation and subsequently a fully automated extraction of the olives. A super-intensive cultivation means that the olive trees are planted tightly in rows for optimal use of the limited areas and that they are reduced to bush size through targeted regular trimming to enable fully automated, cost-saving harvest. Even the most trained eyes have to look several times at these groves in order to sense in these identical avenues the beginnings of the actual splendor, power, and strength of the ever-varying olive trees.
A fully automatic extraction during the olive harvest is then carried out by so-called stilt tractors. These tractors are taller than the trimmed olive trees and can thus be driven over the treetops. They grab the tree by the trunk with the gripper arms and thus shake the olives out of the tree. At the same time, the tractor's huge brush arms drive through the shaken tree and wave the remaining olives out of the branches. Such a harvest causes lasting damage to the olive tree and causes other growing problems such as bird death.
What exactly happens during the production of extra virgin olive oil?
At the end of each day, during the often weeks-long olive harvest, the sacks of olives are picked up by collectively organized tractors, counted, loaded, and brought to the oil mill. In the oil mill, the olive sacks are emptied into a funnel embedded in the floor, so that you are then in the line with your daily harvest. This funnel doses out the amount of olives at regular intervals, which are then transported into the washing line via a conveyor system. There, the olives are finely sifted, separated from other branches and leaves, and washed simultaneously - while the exhausted, unwashed harvest workers proudly look at their yield after a hard day at the olive harvest.
After the washing line, the olives are placed in the mash containers with added cold water. A rotating cutting blade turns the olives in these containers for hours into so-called mash pulp. When the olive mash has finished turning, it either goes into the press or, in our case, into the centrifuge. This decides whether an olive oil is cold-pressed or cold-extracted during production. The press presses and the centrifuge extracts. Our olive oil is extracted in the centrifuge at several thousand revolutions per minute and then bottled with UV and temperature insulation. Using a centrifuge has been proven to be the gentlest way to further process olives after the olive harvest.
Importantly, the entire processing plant must be cooled down with additional water during production. The temperature of an olive oil must never exceed 27 °C during its production. This is important to protect the ingredients and to be able to call the olive oil “cold-pressed” or “cold-extracted” and thus “extra virgin”.
What must be taken into account when producing olive oil?
The olive harvest is all about the degree of ripeness, taste, and protection of the olive and its ingredients. For this reason, time is the crucial factor. To preserve the richness of the olive’s constituents, it is important that oil is produced from the harvested olives within a few hours. Otherwise, the olives threaten to oxidize or rupture in the immensely heavy harvest bags.
Avoiding contamination is another crucial factor in the olive harvest and the production of olive oil. Contamination can negate all of the efforts described above and can be detected in both chemical and sensory analyses. Contamination can arise from:
- Using the wrong harvest materials → nylon sacks instead of linen sacks
- Using machines, especially old machines
- Using the wrong fertilizers or weed products
- Inadequate cleaning of processing equipment during production
Out of wariness about impurities that can creep in quickly, only sustainable material is used for harvesting and processing, everything is harvested by hand, and we rely on the ultra-modern processing facility of our production partner.