Our First Olive Harvest ~ Part One

When we bought our two farmhouses in the heart of Umbria less than a year ago, we were both quite excited that there were 75 mature olive trees growing across the property. My husband so enjoyed owning these olive trees in fact, that he had 15 more planted this past winter that will start to produce olives in another year or two. Since we arrived in May, we have both been patiently watching the trees bloom with olive buds, then watched these buds turn into olives, and finally watched the olives turn from green to black as they ripened. We were quite excited to experience our first olive harvest, but being both new to this whole production we really had no idea how to begin.

My husband discussed when and how to harvest with our landscaper, and our neighbors, (and anyone else who seemed to know ANYTHING about olives). We also scoured the internet, reading up on the difference between cold and hot press and why it was beneficial to use the cold press method. Our landscaper asked around and found a well respected cold press mill close to our house and told us he would schedule our appointment for us as soon as we had all of our olives picked, so we at least had that covered before we began. It seems once you begin to pick it is best to have all the olives off the trees and into the mill within a day or two at the most to ensure the best quality oil. The olive mills all require you to schedule an appointment to have your olives pressed into olive oil, and you are expected to show up at your scheduled time with your freshly picked olives in hand.

A week or two before we thought we would begin, my husband began to assemble our “tools”. When picking olives by hand, you basically only need nets to go under the trees to catch the olives as they fall from the trees, plastic hand rakes that you use to pull the ripe olives off the branches, cases to hold the olives to transport them to the mill, a ladder, and gloves. I won’t mention “who” it was that bought a net big enough to cover a football field that we had to drag from tree to tree for two days, but at least we had a net. We had our landscaper come check out our olives the last week of October to see if they were ready to be picked and he felt they were good to go although if we waited another week or two we might get a little more oil. As the weather the week before had been cold and rainy, but was supposed to be warm and sunny this week we decided to proceed ahead to begin harvesting our olives. We honestly had no idea how long it would take the two of us to pick all of the olives, but since there were quite a few trees that had very few olives on them as we had them well pruned this past winter, we optimistically hoped we might complete all of the picking in one day. The man who had picked our trees last year felt we wouldn’t get more than 6 cases of olives. Surely we could pick 6 cases in one full day?

We awoke excited to begin but were told to wait until the sun had dried the olives before we started to pick. We began just after 9am and were thoroughly enjoying the adventure of picking our own olives that would soon become “our” olive oil. We soon fell into a rhythm as my husband would take the upper parts of a tree on the ladder while I picked everything I could reach from the ground. Initially after picking a tree cleanly we would carefully walk around it just to make sure we didn’t miss a single olive. By the 4th hour of picking, the excitement had worn off, and worrying about every last missed olive fell by the wayside as we knew we needed to increase our pace. We stopped briefly for just a 15 minute lunch and then worked at a frenetic pace all afternoon trying to cover as many trees as possible. As the afternoon progressed it was clear that there was no way we were going to finish in one day, and that we would need more cases. My husband raced off to the store to buy more cases as I continued picking until it was so dark I could no longer see the olives. The actual picking of the olives took less time than collecting the olives from the nets and sorting through them removing leaves and twigs before putting them into the cases.

We got an earlier start the next day, as we were hoping to get through the rest of the trees by early afternoon but the trees on this side had many more olives than the ones we had completed picking the day before. We continued on throughout the second day with just a quick break and finally finished the last tree just before dark. All told, it took over 15 hours to pick all of the olives, which is 30 man hours! I was tired and achy and was not entirely too fond of olives at that point when I headed up to soak in a hot bath. I was beginning to develop an entirely new appreciation for olive oil and the work involved and felt I would NEVER complain about the cost of good extra virgin olive oil again! It was a long, but rewarding two days, and we actually ended up with almost 11 cases, not 6 as we had expected. Although exhausted after two full days of picking, it was quite exciting to see all 11 cases lined up at our front door ready to head to the mill the next morning. After all, by lunch the next day, we would be pouring our very own olive oil onto our bread!

Our Newest 15 Olive Trees ~ Hopefully They’ll Begin To Produce Next Year


Ripe Olive Ready For Picking!


Our Quality Control Supervisor Perched In An Olive Tree ~ Boy He Was Tough!


The Tools Needed For Hand Picking Olives ~ Net, Rakes, & Olive Cases


Using The Rake To Pull Off The Olives


The Ladder Guy Covering The Top Of The Trees


Gorgeous Colored Olives In The Net


Our First Case Picked ~ Only 10 More To Go!


Our Trees Are Of At Least Three Or Four Different Varieties


Moving The Olives From The Net Onto Plastic To Save Time On Day Two


Just 6 Of Our 11 Cases But Aren’t They Pretty?


Part Two ~ From The Mill To The Table!

Deborah Mele
November 2009

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