A very curious statement is printed on every bottle of certified extra virgin olive oil in Spain. The statement is:
"Superior category of Olive Oil obtained directly from olives and solely by mechanical means."
When I moved to Spain and began learning about extra virgin olive oil, I found this statement ( "... obtained....solely by mechanical means") to be a bit awkward and off-putting. "Mechanical means"? What the heck is that! I was more inclined to think top quality olive oil the result of an artisan's gnarled hands, lovingly crushing olives in his back yard. But, ... I learned that nothing could be further from the truth. Obtained by mechanical means is very important if you were interested in a top quality EVOO product.
What is the difference between Mechanized and Hand Picked?
Time is of Essence: Time between when the fruit is harvested, and when it is turned into juice is one of the most important differences between the two techniques.
The sooner the olives are turned into olive oil after harvesting, the better the quality of product. The goal of a mechanized operation is to turn the harvested olives into juice as quickly as possible. A standard goal for this is 4 hours. That is to say that within 4 hours of picking the olives from the tree, the olives are crushed and the olive oil is in a refrigerated vat. Machines make this possible.
When orchards are hand picked, the time between when the fruit is picked and when it is crushed is longer, sometimes as long as 24 hours or more. Most of the hand picked occurs on small holdings and in mountainous areas where it is difficult to use machinery and vehicles. The producers that hand pick usually have only a hectare or two of trees. Many times, the olives may spend some time on the ground during the picking process, which reduces the quality of the fruit. And then once picked off the trees or gathered, they are stored in burlap sacks. Daylight is dedicated to picking and then in the evening on the way back home or the next morning, the burlap sacks of olives are dropped off at the local olive oil mill. Most olive oil mills have special reception procedures for these types of olives, which can be of a lower quality.
Timeliness of Harvest: Like any crop, there is an ideal time to harvest. There are many varieties of olives and many conditions of the orchards which influence the maturation rate. Larger producers using mechanized harvesting methods usually employ a Catador, who acts as the "maestro of the harvest". The Catador will visit each finca or orchard, in the weeks prior to harvest to draw up a plan for the picking, and the plan will reflect the conditions of the fruit and orchard, and also the efficient use of the harvesting teams.
A smaller producer that hand picks olives, usually does so himself (with family or friends) and they do it on their "free time" or in conjunction with another job or responsibilities. The harvesting has to fit into the rest of their lives. So this may result in fruit being picked at the perfect point, or it may be when it best fits into to the person's schedule.
Quality of the Fruit: Orchards apt for mechanized harvesting are usually well maintained and increasingly, are irrigated. Small mountain side orchards or small plots are less likely to be maintained well, and may suffer stress from not enough precipitation at key times of the growing season or weeds getting out of control and sapping the available soil moisture away from the olive trees.
Mechanized Harvesting Technique Description
In a mechanized operation, the process starts each morning with the placement of nets under trees ready for harvest. Usually, teams work one row at a time. Laying the nets on one row and than dragging them to the subsequent row of trees, working across the orchard.
Once the nets are placed, a tractor with a vibrating mechanism starts at one end of the row of trees, and sequentially works to the other end of the row, tree by tree. The vibrating attachment is on the front of the tractor. It consists largely of a large clamp which is hydraulically driven. The tractor approaches each tree and the clamp is closed around the base of the olive tree. Then the clamp is engaged in a vibration mode, voraciously shaking the tree, with small, fast vibrations. Olives rain to the ground.
As the tractor vibrates the tree, a team of harvesters stand around the tree and bat the longer branches, assisting with the dislodging of the olives.
When the olives are off the tree, lying on the nets below, another front loader tractor approaches. The tractor is outfitted with a special bucket that has includes a "net retractor" and bin for the gathered olives.
Workers enter each of the 4 corners of the net into the net retractor, folding over the far corners so that it creates a loose "omelette" with the olives in the middle.
With the corners of the net entered into the retractor, the tractor engages a set of rubber wheels within the retractor that are positioned very close together. These wheels act similar to an ironing mangle (used to iron sheets industrially). The wheels spin the net through, drawing up the net with the olives in it, up to the bucket where the olives are emptied out of the net into the bucket.
Once the olives are in the bin on the front of a tractor, the net is dragged straight into the next row and spread out on the ground again by hand.
Each time the bin is full of olives, the tractor equipped with a front end loader and the retractor bin, makes a dump run to a larger container at the edge of the orchard (accessible by truck). Once at the larger container, the tractor driver lifts the bin above it and opens the bottom of the smaller bin, letting the olives fall out into the larger bin. When the larger bin is filled, or a periodic times, a semi-truck will latch onto the bin, pull it into place on the truck frame, and then go to the molino (olive oil mill), to dump the harvested olives.
Once the olives are at the olive oil mill, they go through a process that will clean away the leaves, sticks and refuge. Then the olives are sorted into bins that feed the machines that crush and extract the extra virgin olive oil. Usually within two hours of arriving to the mill, the olives are processed and the EVOO is in temperature controlled, stainless steel vats.
If you would like to watch a YouTube video showing the steps to a mechanized harvest, check out
Hand Picking Technique Description
The steps are the same for hand picking. First a net is placed on the ground.
Pickers will harvest the olives by hand. Usually batting all they can to the ground, then they hand pick some bunches and use ladders to get to those they cannot reach from the ground.
The olives are stored in plastic buckets or burlap sacks when picking. Periodically these are hauled to a larger bin on the back of a tractor or in a pickup truck. Or, the same buckets and burlap bags are put into a pickup truck. At the end of the day, or early the next day, the olives are dropped at the local molino or "cooperative" mill. Many of the communities have a "cooperativa". This is a mill that is owned by the community. Since it would be unreasonable for many small holders to have their own mill, they all throw together and a cooperative mill is formed. This type of mill accepts all the olives from each of the members or producers. It is more difficult to control the variety and quality in this type of mill. Usually, the cooperative markets the olive oil made. Normally, the product bottled will be a coupage or mix of many varieties and stages of maturation.
Once a tree is picked, the nets are moved to another tree and the process continues from tree to tree.
Notes and Comments
I wrote this article after visiting a finca of the molino called Almazara 1945, which is located a little south of Cordoba, Spain. This visit was at the beginning of the 2018/19 harvest season (December, 2018). The molino is family owned and managed, and only one aspect of many that incorporate the family agri-business. Ignacio, who is the CEO of Almazara 1945, conducted the visit for Pia (my wife) and I. Pia took the photos and videos.
Ignacio explained that this year the harvest is starting a full month later than the 2017/18 harvest. Last season, I tasted some of the earliest EVOO near the 1st of November. This year, the harvest teams were not in the field until the 5th of December - mostly due to the rains that arrived in October/November that delayed access to the orchards.
The finca where the mechanized pictures were taken is composed of approximately 5,700 acres. The orchard includes picual, hojiblanca, and arbequino trees, with several test plots of other varieties of olives.
Each harvesting team consists of 1 tractor that vibrates trees, 1 tractor with the net retractor and olive bin on a front end loader, along with 4 people that bat trees while they are vibrated, and another 4 people that handle the nets - recovering the olives and moving the nets to a new row of trees. A team can do approximately 800 trees per day (more than 100 trees per hour!).
Starting a month later than usual means that generally all the fruit will be riper than last season. Ignacio only had two teams working when we made the visit. By the end of the season, he expects to have five teams working at times. This harvest is expected to last until the middle of February or so.
As far as the 2018/19 harvest in Europe (Spain, Portugal, Italy & Greece), Ignacio said that Spain expects a good crop. The crop will be harvested later so the quantity of olive oil will be up and the sharpness of the flavoring down. He said that both Italy and Greece experienced some stresses in their crops so their production is down. Already Italians are buying in bulk from Spain, which is very early in the season.
I talked with Ignacio about the varieties of olives that he has in his plantations and we visited Picual, Hojiblanca and Arbequino sections of the finca. One of the interesting things he said is that they are experimenting with new varieties and new ways of planting. Arbola which is very similar to Arbequino in flavor but more stable, seems to be an especially interesting variety for the tables of the US.
Ignacio explained that in the newest orchards, a more "intensive" system is being implemented. Trees are planted very close together and during the dormant season they are very carefully pruned so that a new type of harvesting machine can be used. With closely planted trees, sharply pruned, a machine can enter a row and with a "hood" pass over the trees harvesting the olives from each tree. The hood allows each tree to be batted and "vacuumed", so there is no need for nets or many of the workers. Several of the growers in Andalusia are implementing this type of planting. I hope to visit such a plantation next season to see how this works.
I asked Ignacio if he was frustrated that he was not able to start harvesting sooner because of the rain. He said "rain is always good, ...not matter when it comes". The soil, the reservoirs and the trees all need rain,... not so much for this season but for the next. He said that he will never complain about rain.
I think it is important to recognize how top quality extra virgin olive oil is grown, harvested and produced. I think many in the US cling to ideas of alchemy in "Mom & Pop's back yard orchard" when they think of premium extra virgin olive oil. And nothing could be further from the truth.
It is very important that a delicious fruit is produced, and once harvested it must quickly be crushed to produce the juice and stored in temperature controlled vats. Mom & Pop operations don't cut the mustard, usually. This needs to be made clear for discerning customers. For an interesting point of view regarding consumer prices, be sure to check out "Here's Why Good Olive Oil Costs So Much More" at the Huffpost.com website.
There are other issues involved with the bottling. For example, many unscrupulous merchants will take top quality EVOO and cut it with other sorts of oils, colorant and ?? ... looking to increase their bottom line with no care for the experience of the consumer. This is getting harder and harder to do, with inspections at country borders and a more sophisticated consuming public. In Spain researchers in Madrid have developed a new technology that uses lasers to identify poor quality olive oil posing as extra virgin olive oil. For more, check out this article at the Olive Press. Still, shortcuts are endless and unscrupulous merchants are always looking for them.
Bottom line? Find a source you trust for your extra virgin olive oil.
And please consider and try our GringoCool's Spanish Extra Virgin Olive Oils. We work at bringing only the very best quality extra virgin olive oils from Spain to your tabletop in the United States. We want to be your trusted source of the finest quality extra virgin olives oils from Spain.
Thanks for reading. Really, ... thank you. I can't imagine reading all of this unless you are really interested in olive oil. Don't be shy if you have any question. Shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Have a great day and I hope extra virgin olive oil is a part of it. - Steve
P.S. Final Thought
No operation will function without good people. Here are some close up photos of some of the people that make Almazara 1945 successful, and ensure that the extra virgin olive oil is premium quality.