Olives Left Unharvested in Tuscany

In Arezzo, a millers association warns that a lack of workforce, higher costs and plummeting olive oil prices are causing the abandonment of orchards.
Alta Maremma, Tuscany
By Paolo DeAndreis
Jan. 17, 2023 15:31 UTC

Changing mar­ket dynam­ics and reduced mar­gins are caus­ing farm­ers to aban­don tra­di­tional olive orchards near Arezzo, Tuscany, not far from Florence.

Our land­scape is suf­fer­ing, as olive trees planted so long ago by our ances­tors are often aban­doned by the younger gen­er­a­tions,” Giovan Battista Donati, pres­i­dent of the local olive oil miller asso­ci­a­tion attached to the Confartigianato Association, told Olive Oil Times.

See Also:Restoring Abandoned Olive Trees at Leonardo da Vinci’s Home

The lack of work­force in the cur­rent sea­son brought to at least 40 per­cent of the olives being left on the trees in our area,” he claimed.

According to Donati, the extra­or­di­nary qual­ity of local olives is due to the unique soil those trees thrive on. If you dig a hole here on the hills, half a meter below you will meet the stone. Here they grow, with just a lit­tle bit of water, those small-sized olives bear the tra­di­tional Tuscan fla­vors, just like it hap­pens to vines grown on the hills,” Donati noted.

Immigrant work­ers and ded­i­cated coop­er­a­tives com­prise the most sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of Tuscany’s mod­ern olive-related sea­sonal work­force. They tend to focus on the areas where the olive yield is seen as reward­ing. Today, if an olive orchard on the hills does not have many olives on the branches, nobody is going to har­vest them,” Donati said.

Growers do not only have mar­gins and costs chal­lenges. The often ubiq­ui­tous pres­ence of the olive fruit fly, the cli­mate alter­ations which are becom­ing increas­ingly fre­quent, the har­vest sea­son hap­pen­ing with high tem­per­a­tures and the late spring frosts are all fac­tors to which we need to adapt,” Donati under­lined.

In a recent appeal to the local com­mu­nity and insti­tu­tions, Donati high­lighted how the area is at risk of los­ing its high-qual­ity olive oil pro­duc­tion tra­di­tion and cul­ture. On top of that, he warned that aban­doned olives might boost the fruit fly pop­u­la­tions and that unguarded farm­land might trig­ger fur­ther land man­age­ment prob­lems.

Our olive trees grow on the rounded hills you can see while head­ing to Florence. The cypress trees, and the farm­house on top of the hill, there are all the char­ac­ter­is­tics of the renowned Tuscan land­scape. Such unique beauty has brought to the Made in Tuscany as a qual­ity ori­gin brand asso­ci­ated to olive oil pro­duc­tion, wine, arts and land­scape,” Donati noted.

The lat­est Italian data shows that Tuscan olive oil pro­duc­ers account for about seven per­cent of Italian olive oil pro­duc­tion. EVOO-related sales bring a turnover of about €130 mil­lion. In Tuscany alone, 18 olive oil prod­ucts scored a Gold Award at the lat­est New York International Olive Oil Competition, held in 2022.

We should always remem­ber that. The small olive oil pro­duc­tion in Tuscany is so cher­ished around the world that it rep­re­sents a large share of the Italian olive oil mar­ket,” Donati said.

We wit­nessed such results because we used to have work­force in abun­dance; the olive farmer would pro­duce his own olive oil and sell the rest. After work­ing hours in a fac­tory, many used to go back to the olive trees and close the day by prun­ing and man­ag­ing their orchards. Now they are old and their sons do not har­vest the olives any­more,” he added.

The expe­ri­enced olive miller described the gulf that sep­a­rates one gen­er­a­tion from the other. The high-qual­ity farm­ing DNA of the grand­par­ents did not pass down to their nephews. Traditional orchards on the hills do not stand the mar­ket as mod­ern mech­a­nized orchards are planted in the Tuscan plains and obey to dif­fer­ent mar­ket rules,” Donati noted.

The phe­nom­e­non of the aban­don­ment takes place in sev­eral areas in Tuscany, still many are work­ing to reverse the olive orchards aban­don­ment trend,” Tiziana Mariotti, agron­o­mist at the Montalbano Wine and Olive Oil Milling Cooperative, told Olive Oil Times.

Thanks to national and regional funds, the coop­er­a­tive has teamed up with local insti­tu­tions and grow­ers to restore aban­doned orchards not far from Florence. It is a truly chal­leng­ing task, as the olive orchards’ exten­sion is mostly very small and they are evenly scat­tered on the ter­ri­tory.”

As a whole, the coop­er­a­tive has already restored pro­duc­tion in five orchards and more than two thou­sand trees between the Vinci and Serravalle Pistoiese munic­i­pal­i­ties. In the same area, other coop­er­a­tives and ini­tia­tives are also try­ing to restore as many small aban­doned orchards as pos­si­ble.

Once they agree with the landown­ers, the coop­er­a­tive restores the olive trees. That often means to inter­vene in a veg­e­ta­tion which has almost com­pletely hid­den the olive trees among dozens of other species, with bushes grow­ing all around them. After clean­ing, you still have to man­age olive trees, which might have grown up to 15 or even 20 meters,” Mariotti noted.


Once the olive orchard is restored, the coop­er­a­tive and its olive oil mill will man­age the crop for 10 years. The best thing of such inter­ven­tions is that they work as an exam­ple. Once you restore an orchard or make a clean­ing inter­ven­tion in one area, it hap­pens quite often to see other grow­ers in that same area do the same thing,” she explained.

Still, one of the main rea­sons the aban­doned orchards con­tinue to need restora­tion is cor­rect land man­age­ment. That is why we also teamed up with agron­o­mists and fire-pre­ven­tion experts to focus on inter­ven­tions that sup­port ter­ri­to­r­ial safety. One of the largest recent wild­fires in Tuscany hap­pened in an area close to a res­i­den­tial loca­tion, show­ing the urgency of such inter­ven­tions,” she added.

See Also:Thousands of Olive Trees Destroyed by Wildfires in Tuscany

According to Donati, while olive grow­ing becomes a hobby for peo­ple who are more and more con­cerned of costs and lower mar­gins, the land­scape is chang­ing.”

The hills are going to be aban­doned by grow­ers. That will bring our tra­di­tional, beau­ti­ful dry walls to col­lapse, pre­cip­i­ta­tion and water will start exca­vat­ing new routes pre­dat­ing nutri­ents and land from the hills and bring­ing them down to the plains,” Donati pre­dicted.

In the Arezzo province, Donati esti­mated that of approx­i­mately 340 thou­sand res­i­dents, around 40 thou­sand own at least a few olive trees. We can not go against our times, but there should be a strate­gic plan put in place to avoid to lose our hills and to keep olive oil pro­duc­tion up to the high­est stan­dards,” Donati con­cluded.


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