Olive picking in Italy

Olive farm, Paciano´m on a train from Rome to Paciano, and my mission today is simple. ´m going to pick some olives.

Today’s journey is a tiny fractal image of a larger one I took from 1989–1995.

Yesterday, I spent the day in a meeting in a tiny office in Rome. Our subject was the revision of the bylaws of Greenpeace Italy. I was there seventeen years ago when we wrote the first set of bylaws, and Sidney Holt, Maurillio Cipparone, Pietro Dohrn, and David McTaggart set off to get an impeccably dressed Notary to put as many wax seals and official stamps as possible on the piece of paper. We had no clue what it actually took to officially register a non-profit organization like Greenpeace under the Italian legal system. The real process would take ten years. But in the meantime, that piece of paper, on account of having had many wax seals and official stamps applied by an impeccably dressed Notary, allowed us to rent an office at Manlio Gelsomini 28, set up a bank account, raise funds, and all the rest. In Italy, it´s all about presentation. Had the Notary not been impeccably dressed, we´d have been booted out in a week.

I worked in Rome for three years. David McTaggart was the chairman of Greenpeace International at the time. I was his assistant/speech writer/technical support/factotum. I was also his interpreter, both in Italian and his native, but sometimes incomprehensibly idiosyncratic, English. We worked in a separate room in the back of the office, and David´s no-nonsense style kept most of the Italian volunteers and staff at a respectful, sometimes fearful distance. He had, shall we say, a temper.

One day, one of the Italian volunteers, the Leonine Domitilla, simply wandered into that inner sanctum and started strolling around, picking things up off of desks, doing a self-confident perusal, like a cat inspecting a new room.

Domi turned out to be the type of person Greenpeace was built on in those days: passionate, high-energy, a fast learner and capable across a range of skills. She established a reputation for fearlessness in her political work, where she´d kitten her way to the attention of bored and aging white male delegates at various international fora, then bring out the big claws if they mumbled or tried to wriggle out of doing the right thing. She went on to become Executive Director of Greenpeace Italy.

Today, ´m going to spend a morning picking olives with her in Paciano on the farm she inherited from David McTaggart when he died in 2000.

The farm was a bit of an accident. In the early days of the 1990s, McTaggart was contemplating retirement and looking for a house in the Italian countryside. He quizzed every Italian in the office with a dinner-party game in which he asked them if they could live anywhere in the world, where it would be. He´d then shoot down every choice they made. He´d probably lived in or spent significant time in a couple dozen countries in his life, so he generally knew whereof he spoke. But his combative dinner conversational style, in which he good naturedly asked your opinion and then tried to bully you around to his own didn´t set well with everyone.

His real information objective was to ask the natives if they could live anywhere in Italy, where it would be. He investigated beach houses in Sabaudia, Mountain houses in the Abruzzi. But a lot of answers clustered around Tuscany/Umbria. He appointed Domi his official house hunting companion. They roamed the countryside on weekends looking for places, and, inevitably, fell into a relationship which would eventually produce George, David´s only son.

When David found his house, it was a roofless wreck nestled away on a dirt road amid the rolling hills of Umbria. Just what he was looking for. Unfortunately, it sat on a wreck of an olive farm which the owner wouldn´t separate from the house. David knew nothing about olives. He didn´t even like olives. But that was the deal if he wanted the house. He took it.

In 1991 David retired as active chair of Greenpeace International. He was granted an honorary position with some advisory functions, and budget for an assistant. He offered me a job combining that role, help with his own foundation work, help supervising the reconstruction of the other property on his land, and the administration of the olive farm. I took it.

And this was the train that Martha and I rode from Rome to Paciano with our two cats and our belongings, to begin what would be a three year stint among the olive groves. The olive harvest was always the turning point of the year, the time when all the year´s work literally bore fruit, when all of us would drop whatever we were doing to get up at dawn, work until sunset, for three weeks straight without a break. Until my sons were born, it was the only excuse I had as an adult to climb trees.

8 thoughts on “Olive picking in Italy”

  1. thank you for your stats on olive olive harvest.have become proud owner of 150–200 olive trees.to b brought back into production in Catalonia Spain.am retiring to the mountians [not that i have a pension]with my pony and dogs to organically farm a large finca,and am trying to acquire some knowledge of olives before i go,as i prop wont have inter.webs once there.apart from active protesting [way back in the day starting with helping Obie set up first free Windsor.yar yar yar]my skills are plant breeding and equestrian.i shall organically farm the land and hope to do some species conservation work.i have found a lot of imformation online but yours r the first stats on on weights and work hours. thank you more information i have the more courage i feel so Goddess bless you and yours.

  2. We are manufacturers of hand hed olive picking machines working on 12 v battery weighing only 900 gms and capable of harvesting upto 100 kgs per hour. Please email me for any enquiry uchtik@gmail.com

  3. dear sir:
    i come from china,our factory is professional produce garden tools,include olive harvest,could you help me tosell it in you country.our product have CE certificate.

  4. Hi Jacquie,

    drop me an email at brianfit58 at gmail dot com and I can put you in touch with someone who would love to have a volunteer in exchange for a place to stay and meals, if that’s interesting. There’s no place I know of that will pay anything meaningful for this work anymore, and when they do they’ll tend to hire squads of skilled migrants.

    But as a working holiday, I think it’s tough to beat. Out in the sunshine climbing trees, picnic lunch, and the italian country side all around you. My old boss wanted to *charge* people for it as an alternative to the gym. 😉

    Another possibility is to pick with for Olives for Peace, a Joint venture between Israelis and Palestinians who are building coöperation around olive farms.  Sounds good to me as well — picking olives as an act of peace work.

  5. My son, l8, is really interested in picking olives this autumn and a job which he was promised has fallen through. Could you give us some advice on where to go to pick olives? Is Perugia the centre of the universe in this department!!!
    Best wishes
    Jacquie Sole

  6. No idea ´m afraid, Kursad. I’ve seen two kinds of olive picking machines, one that shakes the tree, the other as I’ve described above that combs the branches. I’ve never picked a nut in my life, so can’t say if either of these methods would work.

  7. Hi,

    My name is Kursad Hacihamzaoglu, i am writing from Turkey. I am intersting in olive picking machines. Actually we grow nut in black sea region of Turkey. We are looking for a machine for picking nuts. Do olive picking machines work for nut picking? or Do u have another machine for that. Thanks in advance for your help. 

    Sincerly yours,

    Kursad Hacihamzaoglu

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