By Caroline J. Beck October 09, 2008
We’ve been reporting throughout the growing season about prospects for the harvest this year. While a new crop is almost upon us, some of the most important work is yet to be done. Remembering a few key steps during harvest time will help ensure a great result.
1. TAKE AN INVENTORY
By mid-October (earlier if you are south of Santa Barbara County), it is time to walk the orchard. Depending on your desired taste profile, a visual inventory is usually your best guide to determine the harvest schedule. Keep in mind that you can easily have a 2-3 week ripeness cushion without affecting the flavor outcome. Just be mindful of getting the fruit off the trees before any expected hard freeze.
2. SCHEDULE THE MILL
Next, if you aren’t planning to process the olives yourself, call your miller. Be prepared to tell them when you expect to harvest and how much. Olive presses and mills are not usually run like 9-5 operations. Booking a reservation well ahead ensures that you will have a slot that fits your schedule and the miller’s. If you plan to participate in a “community press” day, make sure to contact your local organization for details.
3. LINE UP HARVEST HELP
Now that you have a milling appointment, arrange for help if you intend to hand-harvest. Booking a crew during the season can be difficult, if not planned in advance. If you don’t have ready access to a large group of friends, your miller or other local growers may be good sources for information on crews.
4. CHECK YOUR SUPPLIES
Double-check that your equipment is in order. Line up enough harvest baskets, ladders, gloves and picking bins. If you are following organic practices, make sure bins are cleaned and ready according to requirements. And don’t forget to have oil storage containers on hand for milling day, or arrange to purchase them from your miller.
5. LAST MINUTE ORCHARD ISSUES
Two weeks before harvest, revisit the orchard. Check for two things: evidence of olive fly and fruit hydration. If you have any fly infestation, assess the volume and alert your miller. A small percentage is generally acceptable, but don’t assume it without checking. Secondly, don’t over-water just before harvest. There are two good reasons: cost and quality. Economically-speaking, water-ladened fruit is heavier and will increase your milling bill. Quality-wise, the less water the mill has to process out, the better. While you don’t want the fruit to become shriveled and desiccated, be judicious with over-plumping just before the harvest.
6. TIMING IS EVERYTHING
Harvest time is finally here. Most importantly, enjoy the process. But while you are basking in the fruits of your labor, remember two key things. Don’t spend too much time or energy on the occasional twig or leaf that finds its way into the harvest bin. If you are paying for the services of a quality mill, the washing and cleaning equipment they employ will generally take care of small amounts of debris. Don’t let harvested fruit sit around too long. Whether the olives are collected into tarps, nets or picking bins, the fruit will start to ferment almost immediately. Most importantly, time your harvest with your milling appointment. The best olive oil is the result of immediate processing. From tree to oil within 24-hours is a sound rule of thumb to remember.
7. GET READY FOR THE NEXT HARVEST
Once the oil is in storage, it’s time to put the orchard to bed for the winter. Perform a yearly visual assessment of the orchard’s health. Remove any fruit left behind by the harvest. If on the ground, olives can become the perfect over-wintering home for fruit flies. Inspect for olive knot, olive leaf spot, and root rot among other orchard problems. Make a plan for any pruning needed before the next spring. There may be steps you can take now to make next year’s crop even better.
Caroline J. Beck is a food and wine writer and a columnist for the Santa Ynez Valley Journal. She divides her time between California and the shores of Lake Huron in Michigan. She began her career in strategic marketing for companies such as Apple Computer and Microsoft and went on to head up entrepreneurial adventures in the entertainment business for Sony. Her most recent past life included an olive ranch and a thriving business in olive oil and specialty foods. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.