The Harvest: A Look at How Our Olives Move from Branch to Bottle

We plan to begin our harvest next week. Our teams will begin picking olives and trucking them to our northern California mill where they’re crushed into extra virgin olive oil. Speed is key. We need to move the picked olives to the mill ASAP to ensure the oil is fresh. We also need to keep an eye on Mother Nature. Rain can halt our harvest crews. And frost can damage olives still on the trees.Here’s a look at what are harvest and milling teams will be doing. Last year’s harvest, by the way,  ended just after Thanksgiving. Our harvest crews worked a grueling 30-hour stretch at the end to avoid the frost.

To bring you up to speed, we have three ranches in northern California. That means we farm about 5,000 acres of our own olive groves. We also cultivate another 7,000 acres through growers we work with under contract. All told, we have roughly 9 million trees under cultivation.

Our teams will begin heading out to the groves next week driving harvesting machines similar to those that vineyard operators use for their grapes. The harvesters allow us to pick the olives more quickly, load them on a truck, and ship them to the mill within hours. It’s this speed which prevents the olives from decomposing before we extract the oil.

When the truck arrives at the mill, the olives are unloaded on to a conveyor belt. They ride the belt and are then sent through a powerful blower that removes the leaves and branches. They also get washed.

Next, the olives are crushed and put into what are called malaxation tanks. These tanks have large spiral paddles which turn slowly and separate the oil droplets from the fruit particles. The resulting olive paste is sent to high-speed centrifuges to further separate the oil from any solid particles and water.

The olive oil initially is pumped into temporary storage tanks, before it’s pumped into large storage tanks housed inside a temperature-controlled room. (The exception here is our Limited Reserve, a seasonal oil we bottle immediately.)

Inside the tank, the oil is allowed to settle for two to three months so Mother Nature can “suck” any remaining olive fruit particles to the bottom. This process is called racking.”   (Unlike large producers in Europe, we typically don’t filter our oil, which involves putting the oil through a thick layer of cotton to trap any tiny fruit particles in the oil.)

During racking, our miller Bob Singletary and his team move the oil from tank to tank about every month to remove the sediment and clean the tank. The racking process typically is completed early in the new year, allowing us to bottle and ship the oil to stores and customers.

Last year, Adam Englehardt, our manager of farming operations, and his team spent October and November working practically day and night to ensure we got the harvest done before frost zapped any crop still remaining on the trees.

The harvest ended Nov. 30, and we managed to avoid frost. By contrast, other millers in the Lodi and Fresno areas south of us had quite a bit of their crop damaged because of frost.

Here’s to good weather and a successful 2011 harvest!

Bon appétit,

Your friends at California Olive Ranch

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