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California olive harvest 2017 – part I

There are days in the fall and winter months in northern California that are especially brilliant. Normally they come after a rain storm has washed the sky clean and the sun comes out to accentuate colors in a way not seen the rest of the year, both the greens, browns and oranges of the landscape and the whites and other colors of the cityscape. They are days of seemingly endless visibility when, for example, from the Berkeley Hills one can see beyond the Golden Gate to the Farallon Islands. It was on one of those sorts of days this past weekend that I joined Albert Katz for the olive harvest north of the Bay Area in the Suisun Valley.

Albert and I have been friends since I worked in his restaurant, the Broadway Terrace Café, for most of the 1980s. We have both gone different ways since then: I to an academic career and the Midwest, Albert via retail to the production of award-winning preserves, vinegars, and oils. But we have always stayed in touch. In a curious, but not accidental, twist my own work as an Italian historian has recently drawn me toward food studies and in particular the history of olive oil. So I can now claim an intellectual interest in Albert’s professional pursuits (to complement my well-established gustatory interest).

And so on a brilliant Saturday morning I found myself among Albert’s handsome trees in the lesser-known agricultural valley east of Napa. Part of the property was planted with young trees, 2-1/2 years old, that required hand picking; trees don’t reach full maturity till about 7 years. So we strapped on white plastic picking baskets (that hang over one’s belly) and set to work, albeit at what must have been a gentlemanly pace compared to the hand-picking traditionally carried out, principally by women, in the Italian mezzogiorno I’ve been studying. In three hours or so we picked 60-70 small trees, some with a fair harvest and some still with no fruit at all, accumulating about 150 pounds of olives. That is the equivalent of about two mature trees and enough for about 2 liters of olive oil. Not factoring in all the other considerable costs of production our labor netted about $15/hour of product.

Meanwhile the picking crew was at work on the full-grown trees in the rest of the grove. Operating an Italian-made “vibrating device” that shakes the olives off the tree onto tarps spread out underneath, their harvesting rate exceeded ours by some orders of magnitude. After a few seconds of vibrating, the crew moved the tarps to the next tree and continued the process. When the tarps were full they transferred the fruit into the large plastic bins that would be taken to the mill. Two other workers cleared the bins of leaves, sticks and any other debris that might have arrived with the fruit. In a morning’s work they filled 16 bins or about 6 tons of olives (of which by my estimate Albert and I contributed about 1.5%).

Getting the fruit off the trees is a millennia-old problem. Traditional harvesting in southern Italy (and of course elsewhere) often involved waiting for the fruit to fall off of its own accord, so harvesting in April or May rather than November. The oil produced from that fruit was used mostly for industrial purposes though some also went to human consumption; doubtless that oil would horrify modern day consumers of EVOO. Other techniques included hand-picking from ladders, often aided by rakes to help strip the fruit off the trees; or using long sticks to beat the trees. These latter methods allowed harvesting the olives at a more opportune point of maturity but required a lot more labor.

When I arrived in the valley, just after dawn, the air was crisp and the temperature in the mid 30s (~3C). By mid-day, when all of us finished our work, the sun had warmed the air up to the upper 50s (~13C) and even at our leisurely pace we managed to work up a mild sweat. The day was still brilliant and the fall colors of nearby walnut and persimmon orchards especially vivid. We saw a blue heron. And then we went to lunch.


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