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Sniffing out the good olives - not that there were many

A combination of bad weather (very mild winter 2013/14 followed by a rainy summer) has led to Italy's most disastrous olive harvest of the century. Right, the century is still young, but we can only pray that we'll never have to see our grove looking as miserable as this autumn until the end of it. To explain what I'm talking about here some facts and figures from the last three olive harvests in our Tuscan grove and the resulting yield of extra virgin olive oil (EVOO):  

In 2012 we picked 542 kg of olives and pressed 74 kg of EVOO (yield 13%).
In 2013 we picked 713 kg of olives and pressed 78 kg of EVOO (yield 11%).
In 2014 we picked   90 kg of olives and pressed   8 kg of EVOO (yield  9%). 

The 2014 olive harvest is just over a tenth of last year's, but we have to consider ourselves lucky that we actually managed to taste our EVOO 2014. Many olive farmers through Italy didn't even bother to start picking. To save the savable, we spread out the nets as soon as our village's olive press opened in the first half of October. But considering the generous use of EVOO in Tuscan cooking, the picked 8 kg will get my in-laws and our family of four not even through the next two months even though the production of our fifty trees is for private use only. 

A table, an orange cat and a pumpkin under a branch of an olive tree
#Febothecat waiting for the olives to turn color

Incredibly enough the year started off looking like a glorious vintage. At least to me from my breakfast view point at the table under our Moraiolo tree. Most olive groves are made up of several varietals of olive trees and every year the yield differs between the various types. This spring the Moraiolo olive tree under which I have my daily cappuccino has been bearing olive flowers and later olives like never before. 

The flowers of a Moraiolo olive tree in our grove in spring 2014

However, other varietals were barren looking all through summer -  mainly the early ripening Leccino trees, which are normally laden with black olives by mid October. But as bountiful as the Moraiolo tree may have looked in late spring and summer, once the harvest started the majority of olives weren't on but already under the tree. 

Rotting olives and leaves under a tree
Countless infested and shriveled olives have fallen from the tree before the harvest

So what happened? And who is the culprit? 

There are countless olive pests that can kill a whole crop. But it needs a working together of various climatic factors to get them going. The mild temperatures during last winter didn't manage to kill off harmful insects and bacteria and the humid spring and wet summer set the ideal conditions for them to proliferate madly.


Well known all through Southern Europe, the olive fruit fly (Bactrocera oleae or Dacus oleae) is always a threat for Italy's EVOO production. Lower lying groves near the coast are normally most affected, but this year trees located inland and higher up were also hit hard.

An insect called tignola, the olive moth (prays oleae) is a lesser known plague, since its damage is normally small enough for most experts and producers to agree, that it is not necessary to intervene. Not this year though! 

Fungi belonging to the Anthracnose family have made the disaster come full circle. The secondary infections had an easy game on the already ailing olives in most Italian groves (for an overview of the most important olive diseases and disorders read on here).  

Olive picking nets and tools with #febothecat on our table in the olive grove
Much ado about nothing: olive harvest equipment was hardly needed this year

EVOO is often affectionately called liquid gold. Never will this have been so true as in 2014, since the scarce harvest will skyrocket the prices of Italian extra virgin olive oil. European olive oil at large may see a rise in prices since Spain - the world's biggest producer - is having a difficult year too, because of the extreme drought in the south of the country. 

I'm not a winter person (I've moved to Italy for a reason), but this year I'm praying for a thorough cold season with low enough temperatures to kill each single insect running havoc in Italy's olive groves. Clearly, the winter should be properly cold but not too freezing since otherwise the baby will be thrown out with the water. This happened in the notorious winter 1984/85 during which not just the olive plagues but also most trees in the groves had been razed to the ground by a three week long spell of Siberian temperatures. After this year's non-existent harvest I am starting to grasp the sorrow and despair farmers must have felt when cutting down the dead trees in their groves in the following spring. 

For more EVOO insight read my olive harvest guide for dummies (in some years we do actually get to pick something) or see how the olive trees are pruned every year by the end of winter. Or just enjoy #theviewfromthegrovetoday with Febo the cat. 

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