It was dark when I got home. Standing on the front deck, I looked out into the pitch blackness towards the olive grove. I knew something was out there. I grabbed a flashlight and went down into the grove.
I wandered along the rows of trees, which looked ghostly in the shadows. I checked the olives for frost damage. Were they okay? We’d already had two frosts, but they were ground frosts which hadn’t settled in the branches. I was relieved to see that the fruit was still in great shape.
Then, I turned a corner and I saw it. Lurking there in front of me was an enormous, alien beast. It was crouched between two trees in a low and prowling position, like an animal about to pounce.
In the darkness I saw a strange, metallic rib cage. Long black arteries arched upwards. A bizarre, central eye looked out. I fought the urge to turn and run screaming.
Only later, in the light of day, was it clear that what looked like ribs in that moment were actually the outsized springs of a shaking mechanism, and the arteries were pneumatic tubes. The eye was a central bolt. This alien beast was the Mighty Tree Shaker, and it was awesome.
Andrew-of-the-Olives had stopped by, and he’d left his tree shaker in our olive grove, ready to start the olive harvest the next morning.
Machine harvesting olives
Several years ago our grove started producing such large quantities of olives that one weekend with a bunch of friends using tiny hand rakes was no longer enough to complete our olive harvest. So we started bringing in Andrew and his Mighty Tree Shaker to harvest our fruit. (You’ll remember Andrew if you’ve read my book. He helped us get up and running.)
I like using a tree shaker because I believe the fruit gets to the grove in a lot better condition. When you hand-harvest olives, it means spreading nets out under the trees and using rakes to comb the fruit off the branches. The olives fall down to the nets. Inevitably a good number of olives get trampled on by the feet of harvesters and completely crushed. Crushed olives start to ferment immediately, and fermented olives lead to what the pros call ‘fustiness’ in the olive oil. That’s bad.
With the tree shaker, olives are captured in an umbrella net and poured directly into crates unharmed. So the fruit is in better condition, and better fruit leads to better olive oil.
We still have our friends out for weekend visits full of good food and laughter, but we no longer ask them to work their fingers to the bone at the olive harvest!
Olive harvest day
The morning after my alien encounter, Andrew and his Mighty Tree Shaker were rumbling through our grove by 8am. A local farmer named Tony was helping out. It was speedy and efficient.
We filled one large bin after another. Before we knew it we had 10 giant bins full. That’s more fruit than we’ve ever had out of our grove – and we’d only harvested 300 of our 500 trees! We stopped then because the remaining trees weren’t giving up their fruit, as it was still early in the harvest season.
Early harvest olive oil
We like to harvest early, when a good proportion of the olives are still green. Early harvest olive oils have more flavor, more of the polyphenols and antioxidants which are good for you, and a longer shelf life. (The polyphenols and antioxidants act as a natural preservative in the oil.)
Some groves prefer to harvest late (when most or all of the fruit is black), because the fruit comes off the tree easier and you get more oil out of every olive. It makes production cheaper. Unfortunately a late harvest also means a blander taste, fewer polyphenols and antioxidants, and a shorter shelf life.
Since our focus is a quality oil, not bulk production, we do an early harvest.
When the day was done, there were giant bins all over the paddocks. Andrew-of-the-Olives delivered our crop to the olive press in Masterton, where it was processed right away for ultimate freshness. It has made a beautiful oil, and we can’t wait to bottle it and get it in stores.
Expect to see our 2014 Single Estate Blend on shelves in September. See our stockists on the olive oil page.
2014 harvest details
- Cultivars harvested: Barnea, Manzanillo, Frantoio, and Leccino
- Fruit weight: 4,419 kgs (9,742 pounds)
- Amount of olive oil: 501 liters (132 US gallons)
- Yield: 10.33% (Relatively low yield is the result of early harvest.)