Producer Profiles

Award-Winning Producer Credits His Team of 'Harvest Experts'

For two months a team of 150 people harvest the olives at Cortijo Virgen de los Milagros, like their parents and grandparents did. "The mill is only the extractor," says Luis Montabes. "Quality is born in the fields."

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Dec. 28, 2017
By Pablo Esparza
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At 8:30 am, the Cortijo Virgen de los Milagros brims with activ­ity.

It’s chilly out there and crews of olive pick­ers gather at the doors of this typ­i­cal Andalusian farm — the sticks to shake the trees at hand, water sup­plies and packed lunch ready to help them endure a long work­ing day.

We are lucky to count on people whose great-grand­par­ents came to this estate before my par­ents bought it in the early 70s. They are experts in har­vest­ing olives.- Luis Montabes

They wait for the Range Rovers to take them to the tajo, as they call their work­ing site in the fields. From 9 am to 4:30 they will be pick­ing olives at the olive grove, with a break of 30 – 40 mins.
See more: The Best Olive Oils of 2017
This estate of almost 600 hectares (1,483 acres) belong­ing to the Montabes Vaño family lies at the heart of Jaén’s famed Sea of Olives.

Over 3.5 mil­lion kilos of olives are picked here every year and an aver­age of 800,000 liters of oil are pro­duced in the estate’s mill.



 



All of Monva’s olive oil, includ­ing its award-win­ning Dominus Early Harvest- comes from the Cortijo Virgen de los Milagros.

Mancha Real is the clos­est vil­lage, just 5 kilo­me­ters away, and Sierra Mágina — the moun­tain range that gives the name to this pro­tected des­ig­na­tion of origin area, over­looks the seem­ingly infi­nite olive grove.

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This is Picual ter­ri­tory, Jaén’s favorite cul­ti­var, and har­vest season is peak time here.

More than 150 people work at the estate during this period, up from an aver­age of 50 to 60 employ­ees the rest of the year.

In addi­tion to eight pick­ing crews (cuadrillasin Spanish) of 10 – 15 mem­bers, there are dozens of trac­tor and vibra­tor dri­vers and the staff of the mill. The logis­tics of the har­vest and milling of such a big estate is not an easy task.

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Whereas olive har­vest in Andalucía spans more or less from November to January, at Monva, this period shrinks to just over two months, start­ing at the end of October. Luis Montabes, Monva’s sales man­ager and one of the owners of this family-run com­pany, shared the reason for this dif­fer­ence.

“We pro­duce three dif­fer­ent kinds of olive oil. For the early har­vest one, we use green olives before they ripen. For the extra virgin olive oil we use olives that are just start­ing to ripen and then we make extra virgin oil with ripened olives,” he said.

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“That is why we move har­vest­ing for­ward a lot com­pared to the coop­er­a­tives in the area and in Andalucía. This makes it so by the end of the har­vest the fruits remain in the trees, so we don’t have to pick them from the ground. Once fruits have fallen to the ground there is no qual­ity at all,” he told Olive Oil Times.

In the fields, activ­ity is fre­netic. Those in charge of beat­ing the olive trees with sticks (varear in Spanish) are mostly men. Then, work­ers groom the can­vases where olives fall in order to remove branches and leaves. Others pull the can­vases and move them from one tree to another.

“Each tree demands a dif­fer­ent way of har­vest­ing. Here we use inverted umbrel­las where olives are shaken and fall directly on the umbrella. We also do ‘milk­ing’ har­vest for younger trees. And we use can­vases and big size vibra­tors for bigger olive trees,” Montabes told us.

Picking olives is a fast and intense job as qual­ity depends partly on how quickly har­vested olives are col­lected in trac­tor trail­ers and brought to the mill. At Monva, the whole process takes less than 3 – 4 hours.

Felipe Castro is the one respon­si­ble for arrang­ing the har­vest­ing oper­a­tion: he decides where to start pick­ing olives and dis­trib­utes the crews along the fields.

To keep record of all that he just needs a pad where he writes down some notes. No com­put­ers, apps or drones. He has spent more than 48 years of his life at the estate and knows it by heart.

Felipe Castro

“My work is orga­niz­ing the har­vest and super­vis­ing the mill and the bot­tling process. Being a family com­pany, we are at every site,” Castro said.

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“I have two assis­tants who help me. We con­stantly go up and down the fields before the har­vest to check where the olives are more ripened. Or when we have to pick the green ones for the early har­vest oil, we choose the ones that we like the most. After so many years you know the plots like your own sons. You don’t need much to know how they are,” he explained with a deep Andalusian accent.

Most of the olive pick­ers at the Cortijo Virgen de los Milagros come from Jaén and Granada and some of them live at the Cortijo during the har­vest. Others prefer to stay in vil­lages nearby.

Cortijos — tra­di­tional Andalusian coun­try houses — have tra­di­tion­ally pro­vided work­ers with accom­mo­da­tions. In the past, when har­vest­ing lasted longer, Virgen de los Milagros used to turn into a small vil­lage and even had a small school and shops for the olive pick­ers’ fam­i­lies.

“We are lucky to count on people whose great-grand­par­ents came to this estate before my par­ents bought it in the early 70s. They are experts in har­vest­ing olives,” said Montabes.

“Their role is key as it con­sists not only in har­vest­ing prop­erly this year’s olives but in taking care of the tree for next year. Because if you shake it the wrong way you may harm next year’s sprouts.”