A Hobby Grower’s Guide to the Olive Harvest

Harvesting olives at the right moment of maturity and bringing them to the mill within 24 hours are a few tips hobby growers can follow to yield extra virgin olive oil.

By Thomas Sechehaye
Nov. 15, 2023 14:49 UTC
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California’s olive har­vest­ing sea­son runs from September through November, but for hobby grow­ers, it is not always clear exactly when the best moment to har­vest has arrived.

Several fac­tors influ­ence the tim­ing of olive pick­ing, which varies depend­ing on the cul­ti­var and intended use.

As olives ripen, their color changes from green to yel­low-green, straw-yel­low, rose-red, red-brown, and dark red or pur­plish black. Green olives must be har­vested before they fully ripen, while black olives are picked when fully mature.

See Also:How Olives Are Processed Into Oil

To gather green olives, look for the right hue. They should be mostly green with a slight blush. The flesh should be firm, and the mature green-ripe olive should release a creamy white juice when squeezed.

Black olives are picked when they have turned fully dark red, pur­ple or black. The pre­cise color varies depend­ing on the vari­ety but is often three to four months after the green ripe stage.

According to Deep Green Permaculture, mature dark olives bruise eas­ily and need to be han­dled with care. The mature dark olives exude a red­dish-black liq­uid when squeezed.

Different olive vari­eties have dis­tinct ripen­ing times, with some matur­ing ear­lier and some later. The vari­eties are defined by their sea­sonal ripen­ing. Early sea­son’ is often ready in late sum­mer; mid-sea­son’ matures in mid-autumn; and late-sea­son’ in late autumn.

Pick olives just before milling,” Mary Louise Bucher, the mas­ter miller and owner of Trattore Farms, told Olive Oil Times. The ideal tim­ing is for olives to go from the tree to the mill the next day or within 48 hours.”

Bucher rec­om­mended leav­ing fallen olives on the ground to pro­duce high-qual­ity table olives and extra vir­gin olive oil. In addi­tion, olives should be stored in a cool, dark, well-ven­ti­lated place before milling.

Charles T. Crohare, owner of The Olivina, agreed. Growers need to under­stand the impor­tance of proper pick­ing and stor­ing of olives,” he said. Olives should be free of olive fruit fly dam­age and have min­i­mal leaves or twigs. There can be no dirt, peb­bles or rocks, as that can dam­age the mill.”

Samantha Dorsey, the pres­i­dent of McEvoy Ranch, empha­sized that olives need to be milled shortly after the har­vest to pro­duce extra vir­gin olive oil, adding that many com­mu­nity mills will not accept olives har­vested days before­hand and refrig­er­ated.

Olives picked too far in advance will not fare well and may not meet the qual­ity stan­dards,” she said. We are very selec­tive regard­ing the qual­ity of olives going into our blend.”

Millers advise check­ing in advance with the mill in each area. Each mill has unique guide­lines and par­tic­u­lar qual­ity stan­dards for what they will accept.

Growers who know these pref­er­ences in advance can take extra pre­cau­tions. This includes care­ful pick­ing, proper han­dling, cor­rect stor­age and select tim­ing.

Diligence in har­vest­ing not only can cre­ate excep­tional olive oil but also can pre­vent dis­ap­point­ments, such as hav­ing olives rejected at the mill.

Picking olives from trees requires care and proper han­dling. To gather olives, experts advise using proper tools such as gloves, col­lec­tion con­tain­ers, prun­ing shears – called seca­teurs – and a plas­tic olive hand rake.

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Professional grow­ers rec­om­mend plac­ing tarps under the olive trees. If using a rake, the process includes gen­tly dis­lodg­ing the olives from the tarp.

Although hand-pick­ing olives is more time-con­sum­ing, it has dis­tinct advan­tages. One advan­tage is that it avoids olive bruis­ing, which many grow­ers find well worth the extra effort.

Some myths about olive har­vest­ing can be the source of sig­nif­i­cant prob­lems. Growers new to olive har­vest­ing often believe it is a good idea to let the olives fall on their own, which seems like a harm­less assump­tion because it sounds like a nat­ural part of the process.

However, this method is not con­ducive to pro­duc­ing high-qual­ity extra vir­gin olive oil because the olives gen­er­ally fall from the branches after they have become over­ripe and lost many of the nat­ural com­pounds that give them their health ben­e­fits and organolep­tic prop­er­ties.

Hand-har­vest­ing is con­ve­nient when gath­er­ing olives on small trees that are not too tall. To pick green olives, shears may be used to cut olive clus­ters, while avoid­ing bruis­ing the fruit. To pick black olives by hand, gen­tly grasp and twist the fruit to release it from the stem.

According to Gardening Know How, the ear­lier olives are har­vested, the more bit­ter the fla­vor. As olives mature, the fla­vor soft­ens or mel­lows.

Before decid­ing when to har­vest, it is help­ful to know whether the olives will be pre­served in brine or pressed into oil. This way, hobby grow­ers can make appoint­ments at a local mill or take the nec­es­sary steps to pre­pare the brine ahead of time and enjoy the fruits of their labor.


Know the Basics

Things to know about olive oil, from the Olive Oil Times Education Lab.

  • Extra vir­gin olive oil (EVOO) is sim­ply juice extracted from olives with­out any indus­trial pro­cess­ing or addi­tives. It must be bit­ter, fruity and pun­gent — and free of defects.

  • There are hun­dreds of olive vari­eties used to make oils with unique sen­sory pro­files, just as many vari­eties of grapes are used in wines. An EVOO can be made with just one vari­ety (mono­va­ri­etal) or sev­eral (blend).

  • Extra vir­gin olive oil con­tains healthy phe­no­lic com­pounds. Substituting a mere two table­spoons of EVOO per day instead of less healthy fats has been shown to improve health.

  • Producing high-qual­ity extra vir­gin olive oil is an excep­tion­ally dif­fi­cult and costly task. Harvesting olives ear­lier retains more nutri­ents and extends shelf life, but the yield is far less than that of fully ripe olives that have lost much of their healthy com­pounds.



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