The oli­ve har­vest then and now

For more than 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 of land 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.

Grandma Anthoula lays out the harvest net under an olive tree

The OEL brand is 100% pure, self-pro­du­ced, and orga­nic extra vir­gin Koron­ei­ki oli­ve oil. OEL is “self-pro­du­ced” in two ways. First, our orga­nic Koron­ei­ki olives grow and thri­ve exclu­si­ve­ly on our own orga­ni­cal­ly cer­ti­fied trees on our 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 of the sun. 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 the 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.

We har­vest the olives from the first to the last ray of sunshine.

A harvest net is spread out under the olive trees that are to be harvested.

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 popu­lar belief, 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.

The vibrating machine delivers the harvested olives into the harvest sacks.

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 a 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. 

Harvest workers close the bulging harvest bags, which weigh 60kg.

A ful­ly auto­ma­tic extrac­tion during the oli­ve har­vest is 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.

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.

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 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 con­sti­tu­ents and so to be able to call the oli­ve oil “cold-pres­sed” or “cold-extrac­ted” and thus “extra virgin”.

The filled harvest bags are loaded onto the tractor, which takes them to the oil mill.

The oli­ve har­vest is all about the degree of ripeness, tas­te, and pro­tec­tion of the oli­ve and its con­sti­tu­ents. 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.

OEL flows out of the filtering equipment in the oil mill.