Sunday, 18 November 2007

Why I Dread the Olive Harvest

It is now four weeks, three days, sixteen hours and twenty-eight minutes until we begin this year's olive harvest. Not that I am wishing my life away counting down the time in eager anticipation until I can get out there with my olive-whacking stick. Oh no. Totally the opposite in fact.

This will be the fourth season that my partner, Penny, and I have attacked our four hundred mature olive trees and I dread the thought more and more every year. Now I know what to expect, the dread begins earlier and earlier. This time, the night sweats began as early as mid June.

So why, you may well ask, did we buy a plot of land with four hundred olive trees in the first place? Good question. When we first saw "Xerika", the name of the farm that is now our home, we were both stunned by the amazing views of sea, mountains and hills. Then my eyes focused on the five acres (20,000 square metres) packed with olive trees, vines and about sixty assorted fruit and nut trees.

My jaw dropped. "Oh, my God," I said.

"Problem?" asked the estate agent, who was showing us round.

"Yes, problem. We don't know the first thing about growing olives."

"It's not exactly rocket science," said the agent dismissively. "You'll soon pick it up."

Penny had immediately fallen in love with the place, however, so the decision was made despite my reservations.

The agent was right though, I have to admit. However, olive growing may not be rocket science, but the olive harvest is sheer bloody hard work and mind-numbingly tedious to boot. It is also an activity which should be registered with the Dangerous Sports Association.

Take last year's harvest, for instance. On the very first day, I had to go to the local hospital as I had a fragment of olive leaf lodged in my eye from looking up into a tree whilst bashing it with my stick. This meant that I had to wear an eye patch for the next twenty-four hours, which seriously affected my whacking aim. Not long afterwards, I almost took my leg off with a chainsaw.

I had various pulled muscles from lifting olive sacks and slipping on greasy olive nets and it took about eight months to recover from "olive harvesters' elbow" - in both elbows, I might add. Combine all this with the detrimental effect on my liver caused by having to consume several pints of beer every night to ease the pain and you'll understand why I believe olive harvesting is far more dangerous than jumping the Grand Canyon with jet-propelled roller skates whilst simultaneously ironing a shirt on the summit of Mount Fuji. OK, I admit that this example might be geographically rather tenuous, but I think you'll get my drift.

As well as the physical danger, there is also the serious risk of the total disintegration of relationships. Penny and I have exactly the same argument every harvest on an almost daily (and sometimes hourly) basis:

PENNY: OK, this tree's done. Next one.

ME: But there's more olives up there than you could shake a stick at.

PENNY: There's about twelve.

ME: Couple more bashes, that's all.

PENNY: We don't have the time.

At about this point in the "conversation", Penny usually accuses me of being anally retentive. I then retaliate by telling her she's slapdash and wasteful, and then we end up not speaking for hours. (Why is it that airheaded, disorganised people always accuse efficient and well organised people as being anally retentive? This thought could lead me on to consider what the opposite of anally retentive might be, but perhaps I won't go there just now.)

I have spoken to a number of friends in Britain who have never even seen an olive tree, never mind harvested one, and they all have this absurdly romantic image of what it's like. They seem to have this idea that Penny and I stroll out into the olive grove every bright and sunny morning, each with a little wicker basket over one arm, and spend a delightful day casually picking individual olives and singing cheery olive harvesting songs. Come to think of it, I've never heard anyone singing while they're harvesting - cheerily or otherwise. I have, on the other hand, heard an awful lot of swearing, groaning, sighing and moaning.

Now I'm totally against the idea of genetically modifying crops (or anything else for that matter) but in the case of olive trees, I would be prepared to make an exception. A friend and I discussed this recently and decided that it shouldn't be beyond the whit of some scientist or other to design the GM Self-Harvesting Olive. This would be achieved by equipping each olive with it's own tiny machete, which it would use to cut through its stalk and detach itself from the tree. It could also have a mini parachute so that the fruit would not be bruised when it hit the ground as well as little legs to enable it to walk to the nearest sack and climb into it.

Until that glorious day comes, however, I will have to endure several months of nightmares about the impending harvest and then the pure hell of the harvest itself.

I once read that, in ancient times, "only virgins and young men sworn to chastity were allowed to harvest the trees" (Athens News). Oh, if only I'd been an olive farmer in those days. I'd have every excuse I could possibly wish for.

ENDNOTE: By the way, for all those friends and relatives in Britain who have been promising for so long that they'd come out and help with our olive harvest some time and haven't yet made it - I'm just kidding. Honest. You'll love it!

(c) Xerika
October 2007


Lime & Tequila said...

Hysterically funny in a sadistic, glad I'm not there sort of way. I so loved your writing style I plan to merge myself into a few more posts after I break open the bottle of Ouzo I just bought from the Ralph's Supermarket down the street (yes, out of a sense of romance, even though I don't like Ouzo all that much, I brought it to bring back memories of my three years in Greece).

Peace and happy thoughts at having (hopefully) survived another Olive harvest,

Lime & Tequila

Xerika said...

Hi lime & tequila.

Thank you for your remarks. It's always good to get a bit of encouragement now and again. (Now is good. Again is even better.)

Enjoy the ouzo. Yamass.

Mitzi said...

Lovely and honest.But I am sure that u would never change the Olive Harvest for anything.Keep up the good work.
Next time, write on the Happy momments of the Olive Harvest.....

Xerika said...

Hi Mitzi and many thanks for commenting.

This year's harvest is due to begin as usual about the middle of November. I promise to try and look out for some happy moments and report them if I come across any :).


Anonymous said...

Love the post! But I'm just a bit confused. That is a ton of trees for 2 people, but do you actually do it for the money? Or is it just a tradition for you?

I often pick olives with my family in southern Greece, but we have a great time because we honestly just do it to get away from our lives abroad and in the city. I'd probably go crazy if I spent all winter with my wife picking 400 trees worth of olives.

Have you tried marketing for a type of work vacation for the olive harvest?

Xerika said...

Hi Peter,

Thanks for your comments and I'm sorry it's taken me so long to respond. Blame it on olive harvesting fatigue!

In answer to your question, we do rely to some extent on the income we get from our olive oil, but I'm glad it's not my 'day job'.

We did try having people here to help with the harvest as a kind of work vacation as you suggest but, to be honest, it wasn't a great success. Perhaps I'll add a post about the experience when my elbows have recovered from the last harvest.

All the best,


P.S. As for your comment about going crazy if you spent all winter harvesting 400 olive trees with your wife, I'm still having intensive counselling :).

Olive Farmer said...

We do the same in Crete
different type of blog:

Unknown said...

My name is Ryan and my girlfriend and I plan on following the harvest season across Europe during the fall of 2010/early 2011. We plan tentatively on being in Greece shortly after christmas and staying till the olives are all gone. We would be traveling with CDN passports and would be happy to ease some of your harvest troubles in exchange for board (we'll settle for a safe place to pitch tent)...
also can be found at as snoeedog

Unknown said...

Hi Xerika,

I read your post and found it amusing. We are a equipment manufacturer in Canada and we believe that we may have something that could help with your Olive harvest. Can you tell me what happens to the Olives after you catch them in the net? Do you have to separate the leaves/twigs from the Olives as well? If there is a chance our equipment could work, we would like to offer you it in exchange for video, pictures and written feedback. I would post my email for you to contact me, however, I would rather not in this public forum. I will check back to see if you respond. Thanks Jay

Xerika said...

Hi Jay.

Thanks for your intriguing comment.

In answer to your question, we separate out as many of the leaves and twigs as possible before sending the olives to the press. We have our own 'machine' for doing this, which is a kind of wire mesh riddle that allows the olives to drop through into a sack while leaving most of the leaves and twigs behind.

It's important to do this because the olive press fee is partly based on the number of sacks we send in, so obviously we don't want the sacks to be half filled with rubbish.

The press also has its own machine to get rid of any leaves and twigs that remain.

Having said that, I'd be delighted to hear more about your company's equipment.

Thanks for posting.


Anonymous said...

Hi Xerika i was looking for some advice,,ive recently been offered the oppertunity to maybe make a bid on a 500olive and almond tree finca in catalunya,,it has a new irragation system on about 10 acres and comes with a nice home,,im relocating and considering a small farm holding,,this is a finish home and brand new irragation system,,and i once spent a season running a house of fruit pickers aswell as working the harvest in holland many years ago. anyway,, i was wondering if i could maybe get some feed back from you guys about the life of an olive farmer,,any and all help and assistence with info would so very gratefully apprecciated.. i just have a few question about the average year on the farm,,hours worked ect ect... i woul dbe most grateful as i said for any info that you could assist me with. my email is [address deleted],,,,this comment is not really for posting ,,its more t just make contact,,but if your going to leave it up,,id be grateful if youd remove my email first on Why I Dread the Olive Harvest

Xerika said...

Hi Bill.

Sounds interesting. I'll email you soon, although I know that olive cultivation and harvesting in Spain is usually quite different from here in Greece.

In the meantime, you might want to check out my more up-to-date website, which includes podcasts about life in Greece as a British expat. One of the podcasts is about the olive harvest, and you can find it at


P.S. I've deleted your email address from your comment as requested.

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