It’s 8.30am on a farm in Alozaina. The crew is already on site, ready to start a new day’s work. After spreading out between the trees, they start to pick the olives by hand, one branch after another.
It’s just another day in the 2021 olive harvest, which starts in mid-September in many places in Malaga province and takes about five weeks. There are different procedures for the varieties of olive produced in the province, depending on the way they are picked and the weather conditions each year.
In this municipality in the Sierra de las Nieves there are different types, although one of them is the real star: the aloreña, a table olive with its own protected Denomination of Origin. “It is distinguished by its large size and the ease of removing the stone, which is known as ‘floating stone’. It’s the ‘pata negra’ ham of olives, there is none other like it,” says Juan Miguel Gómez, a producer and secretary of Copusán, the cooperative in Alozaina, which has around 800 members. Gómez, who is also the president of the Interprofesional de la Aceituna Aloreña association, has 1,400 of these aloreña olive trees on his land in Alozaina. His crew of eight pick the olives by hand with a method known as ‘ordeño’, which means they select the ones which are biggest and best-looking. The aloreña olive is very sensitive to bruising, which is why mechanised harvesting is not possible.
The crew normally divide themselves into groups of two, who carry a fabric ‘bed’ on which to place the olives which they pick. Occasionally they work individually, using a basket with handles (known as a ‘macaco’) to hold the harvested olives. The workers say every day is different, and the final result depends on how loaded the trees are. Normally they each pick about 180 kilos of olives from 30 trees.
On this occasion they are expecting the harvest to be smaller than in previous years because of the “almost non-existent” spring and the short rain at the end of the summer, as these conditions have not favoured the growth of the olives.
“Last year we picked over 26,000 kilos; this year it will probably be about 25,000,” says Gómez, who also has olive trees in Teba and Campillos. Those are mainly the hojiblanca variety, which is easier to harvest.
After a break for breakfast about 10am, the crew carry on with their day, which lasts until about 3 or 4pm following a short break for lunch. Once the cars are full of buckets of olives, they head for the cooperative to unload the day’s harvest. It is then that special equipment separates the olives according to their quality: extra, first or second.
“This is new machinery and it has really helped us in our work. Before, we all used to arrive with our olives at the same time and there wasn’t enough space,” says José Manuel Gil, vice-president of the cooperative in Alozaina, who also has 2,000 olive trees in the village. “We’re not expecting a big harvest this year; a lot of the olives are starting to go purple already,” he says.
If the olives go purple, they are left to ripen on the tree and are picked later, once the green olive harvest is over, and used for other purposes. “When the branches of the trees bend because of the heat, we say they are ‘august-ed’,” José Manuel Gil tells us. He worked for more than 30 years for the old Sevillana electricity company before deciding to go back to his village and focus on his olives instead.
Although many of the workers are from Alozaina, some also come from other villages in inland Malaga province. “At weekends and on public holidays there are a lot more people in the country than usual, because entire families come to their land to pick the olives,” says José Miguel Gómez.
Once at the cooperative, where about 20 people work during the busiest months of the harvest, the olives are carefully selected to meet the required quality. After passing through two digital scanners, the third check is manual: various members of staff separate the smallest and lowest quality one by one; these will be used to make olive oil, a process which will begin at the end of October, once the harvest is over.
The olives which have been selected are split, placed in brine and kept in large tanks inside the cooperative. The brine is made with the ‘egg test’ method, where an egg is placed in a container with water and salt is added until the egg floats, because that is the exact moment when the concentration of salt is ideal for sweetening the olives. After several days, they are seasoned with fennel, thyme, garlic and pepper before being packaged.
The cooperative in Alozaina is one of the many in the province that work flat-out at this time of year. According to figures from the Junta de Andalucía, it is estimated that olive production will be about 438,740 tonnes this year, which would be 9.7 per cent lower than in 2020.
Looking at the different provinces in the region, the production in Seville is highest (301,000 tonnes of olives for eating), followed by Cordoba (80,000 tonnes) and Malaga (nearly 51,000). With regard to employment, there are expected to be 19 million days worked in the Andalusian countryside. In Malaga, the weather has reduced part of the hoped-for production, say sources at the farmers’ association Asaja.
“We are expecting a drop of about ten per cent in the harvest in Seville, while in Cordoba the production will probably be higher than last year and in Malaga it will be 25 per cent lower,” they say.
Meanwhile, Andalucía is expected to produce more than 1.5 million tonnes of olive oil this year, which would be 5.5 per cent less than last year.