Malta’s New Olive Growers Cooperative Seeks to Professionalize Historic Sector

Ahead of a bumper harvest, the cooperative aims to transform the thousand-year-old sector through investment, education and tourism.

Sorting olives at one of Malta's modernizing mills
By Daniel Dawson
Aug. 31, 2023 17:08 UTC
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Sorting olives at one of Malta's modernizing mills

Despite a July heat­wave and dry sum­mer, Jimmy Magro is con­fi­dent that the com­ing 2023/24 crop year will be a water­shed moment for Malta’s olive oil sec­tor.

The last rain­fall we had was in April, but it’s going to be a good har­vest,” the pres­i­dent of Malta’s newly-formed Olive Growers Cooperative told Olive Oil Times.

Citing esti­mates from the national agri­cul­ture min­istry, Magro said Malta is antic­i­pated to yield 60,000 kilo­grams of olives from 130 hectares of groves in the com­ing crop year.

See Also:People Here Use More Olive Oil than Anywhere Else in The World

Malta is a small Mediterranean arch­i­pel­ago com­posed of three main islands and many smaller ones about 90 kilo­me­ters south of Sicily and 300 kilo­me­ters east of Tunisia.

Olive trees have grown on Malta for over 1,000 years, flour­ish­ing under Phonecian and Roman rule. However, Arab con­querors replaced olive trees with cot­ton plants in the 9th cen­tury CE. The cot­ton was later replaced by sheep pas­tures under British rule.

Magro hopes the bumper har­vest and found­ing of the Olive Growers Cooperative, which already has 50 mem­bers, will revi­tal­ize the island’s his­toric crop. Olive grow­ers need to join the coop­er­a­tive,” he said. We need to get the sec­tor orga­nized.”

Many pro­duc­ers in Malta are small-scale grow­ers who farm olives part-time and work full-time in sep­a­rate indus­tries. However, Magro said there is grow­ing inter­est in olive oil pro­duc­tion on the island, with some new entrants con­vert­ing old vine­yards to olive groves and plant­ing new olive trees on empty land.

He founded the coop­er­a­tive in October 2022 to pro­fes­sion­al­ize the sec­tor. Due to its small size, he believes focus­ing on qual­ity and find­ing niche cus­tomer bases is the best way for olive oil pro­duc­tion to thrive.

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Malta’s Olive Growers Cooperative in ecouraging farmers to plant more olive trees.

According to the International Olive Council, Malta, which is home to about 520,000 peo­ple, con­sumes about 1,000 tons of olive oil each year. As a result, find­ing new sales and mar­ket­ing part­ners is the sector’s main long-term chal­lenge. We can find a new mar­ket seg­ment,” Magro said.

He added that edu­cat­ing farm­ers about farm­ing best prac­tices and improv­ing the infra­struc­ture of the olive oil pro­duc­tion chain are the two crit­i­cal fac­tors to the sector’s suc­cess.

Magro strongly believes that con­vert­ing to organic olive groves is one of the best prac­tices that Maltese pro­duc­ers must adopt. We see a very strong trend in that direc­tion.”

The min­istry is in the process of set­ting up a ded­i­cated mill for organic olive oil pro­duc­tion, with which Magro said the coop­er­a­tive would likely be involved.

The coop­er­a­tive is also work­ing with the national gov­ern­ment and Unaprol, Italy’s national olive oil pro­ducer asso­ci­a­tion, to teach grow­ers about prun­ing, fer­til­iza­tion, pest man­age­ment and har­vest­ing best prac­tices.

Magro said these will come in agri­cul­tural exten­sion ser­vices, allow­ing farm­ers to meet expert advi­sors one-on-one in their groves to receive hands-on train­ing.

He also dis­cussed the need for the country’s exist­ing millers to invest in their mills by increas­ing stor­age capac­ity and improv­ing bot­tling equip­ment.

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Jimmy Magro founded the Olive Growers Cooperative in October 2022.

There are also plans to increase effi­ciency through dig­i­tal­iza­tion. Magro wants to allow grow­ers to con­nect dig­i­tally with millers dur­ing the har­vest to sched­ule times to deliver their olives and pick up their olive oil, stream­lin­ing a some­times messy process.

This is very impor­tant to main­tain qual­ity. Sometimes, the millers are over­run by large quan­ti­ties of olives at one time,” he said. It would be like book­ing a hotel room for olive grow­ers.”

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While the tra­di­tional Italian vari­eties, includ­ing Frantoio, Leccino, Carolea and Pendolino, make up most of the country’s olive groves, one-third is com­prised of native vari­eties: Maltija, Bidnija, Bajda and sev­eral wild vari­eties.

According to research from the University of Malta, the Maltija cul­ti­var is the most pop­u­lar among local grow­ers due to its high level of pro­duc­tiv­ity, while the Bajda is most dis­tinc­tive with its white dru­pes.

Meanwhile, the Bidnija cul­ti­var is thought to be the old­est, with evi­dence of the vari­ety being planted dur­ing Roman times. The olive vari­ety is also well suited to drought and has a high con­tent of polyphe­nols.

For his part, Magro said extra vir­gin olive oil made from native vari­eties has dis­tinc­tive organolep­tic qual­i­ties endowed by the com­bi­na­tion of Malta’s unique cli­mate and topog­ra­phy. According to Magro, cli­matic con­di­tions in Malta are sim­i­lar to those of Tunisia.

As a result, the coop­er­a­tive has drafted doc­u­ments to apply for Protected Designation of Origin or Protected Geographical Indication cer­ti­fi­ca­tions from the European Union. Malta has three reg­is­tered PDO cer­ti­fi­ca­tions for wines and has applied for one for Ġbejna tan-nagħaġ Belg cheese.

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Magro said the sector expects to enjoy an abundant yield in the 2023/24 crop year.

Magro said the coop­er­a­tive works closely with the national gov­ern­ment on the PDO and PGI appli­ca­tions. Along with these efforts, Magro wants to fur­ther work with local author­i­ties to develop an extra vir­gin olive oil cul­ture in Malta, start­ing with its youngest inhab­i­tants.

We want to have a scheme where school chil­dren – who are already given free milk – also receive free extra vir­gin olive oil twice per week,” he said. It’s not going to be very expen­sive, and if we start from a young age, teach­ing chil­dren about extra vir­gin olive oil and the olive tree, they will become famil­iar with the prod­uct and hope­fully be future con­sumers.”

Magro’s ulti­mate goal is to inte­grate the olive oil sec­tor with the rest of Maltese soci­ety. As a result, the coop­er­a­tive plans to host and par­tic­i­pate in var­i­ous events lead­ing up to the har­vest.

In September, they will visit local fes­ti­vals in Zejtun (from the Arabic word for olive oil) and Zebbug (mean­ing olive) to pro­mote local olive oil. The coop­er­a­tive will also hold an event focused on improv­ing pro­duc­tion qual­ity and imple­ment­ing organic farm­ing prac­tices on November 26th to cel­e­brate World Olive Day.

Magro also seeks to inte­grate Maltese olive oil pro­duc­tion and tourism, one of the coun­try’s main eco­nomic dri­vers.

We’re look­ing into the pos­si­bil­ity of set­ting up some form of coop­er­a­tion to intro­duce olive oil tourism in Malta,” he said. We have very high num­bers of tourists com­ing.”

Magro added that oleo­tourism would likely lead to increased olive oil sales to tourists. Nearly 2.3 mil­lion tourists vis­ited Malta in 2022, con­tribut­ing €2.2 bil­lion to the local econ­omy.

We want vis­i­tors to have a spe­cial expe­ri­ence vis­it­ing the olive grove, learn­ing about olive cul­ti­va­tion on Malta and tast­ing our extra vir­gin olive oil,” he con­cluded.



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