How many olives to make a bottle of oil?

You gain a new appre­ci­a­tion of the olive oil you slather on your sal­ad or cook your veg­eta­bles in when you know that every litre is made up of 1,375 olives that took 47 min­utes to pick.

How many olives to make a litre of olive oil?
In the US and Canada, the more com­mon bot­tle size is 750 ml or 25.4 Flu­id Ounces. That’d be 1031 olives, 35 min­utes to pick.

Electric olive rakeOn Sat­ur­day I got to pick olives once again. Years ago, I lived on an organ­ic olive farm in Umbria run by the then-retired chair­man of Green­peace, David McTag­gart. Every year around har­vest time, we’d start mak­ing the calls to folks who might like to vol­un­teer to spend some time in the Ital­ian sun­light (pro­vid­ed it didn’t snow) enjoy some good hon­est labor (from sun­rise to sun­set) and take advan­tage one of the few excus­es you get as an adult to climb around in trees. We gen­er­al­ly had plen­ty of tak­ers for what was sup­posed to be a paid job, but which plen­ty of folks were will­ing to do in exchange for food and hos­pi­tal­i­ty.

We didn’t men­tion that it could be mis­er­able — if the weath­er was wet or you wound­ed your hands even slight­ly, or the ground turned to mush that sucked at your boots — or that you worked what­ev­er the weath­er and the work was bone-aching­ly, mus­cle-pulling­ly, RSI-induc­ing­ly hard.

But when I see the­se folks today, what we tend to remem­ber most is the good stuff. The incom­pa­ra­ble light falling across the hills where Han­ni­bal marched his army toward Lake Trasi­meno, shim­mer­ing far below us in the dis­tance, the taste of good coarse bread and Mon­tepul­ciano wine, the sound of the wind and, here and there, the scent of truf­fles where a boar has pawed up a gourmet meal at the base of an oak tree.

So when I found myself in Rome for a meet­ing in the mid­st of the pick­ing sea­son with a Sun­day to spare, I glad­ly vol­un­teered to help pick at the old farm, which has passed into the hands of Domi­t­il­la Sen­ni. The weath­er was stun­ning, the com­pa­ny good, and I real­ly need­ed the kind of zen space that man­u­al labour can get you into.

There was a new-fan­gled inven­tion come to the farm. Now back in my day, we dis­dained even so much as the plas­tic rakes that were com­mon among the sea­son­al pick­ers that came through, pre­fer­ring the 100% organ­ic-by-hand method and only allow­ing for the occas­sion­al glove when there was actu­al snow on the branch­es.

The talk of tree-shak­ing machi­nes was always dis­dain­ful: some­thing only no self-respect­ing olive farmer would do to a per­fect­ly good olive tree.

But I won­der what my old boss, David McTag­gart, would have made of the Elec­tric Rake that we were using on Sat­ur­day.

Let’s start with the neg­a­tives. First strike again­st: it’s elec­tric. They say it’ll go an entire day on a sin­gle charge, but still: it’s elec­tric. It’s noisy. It con­tributes to cli­mate change. Sec­ond strike: it ain’t organ­ic. Among the mil­lenia-old meth­ods of pick­ing olives, of which there are a few, a rotat­ing set of plas­tic fin­gers on a car­bon-fibre stick is not one of them.

But among the things that David tru­ly val­ued in the pick­ing sea­son was speed. He was a Calvin­ist when it came to the job of har­vest­ing olives. It was most­ly about hus­tle and hard work, though you’d catch him hum­ming from time to time in his red flan­nel shirt in the sun­shine.

He once asked me to cal­cu­late how many olives an aver­age pick­er picked, and it set me to think­ing a dozen corol­lary sta­tis­ti­cal ques­tions about olives. How many olives does it take to make a litre of oil? How many olives in an ounce of oil? How many litres of oil does an aver­age pick­er pick per hour? Philo­soph­i­cal­ly, what is an olive? More prac­ti­cal­ly, how do you mea­sure pro­duc­tiv­i­ty by the stan­dard bench­marks of olive pick­ing (the box, the sack, the quin­tale, the litre of oil). This was what I came up with:

olive data(The holes at the left of each page are rem­nants of my pre­ferred data-stor­age method in those days, my now-retired Filo­Fax)

You gain a new appre­ci­a­tion of the olive oil you slather on your sal­ad or cook your veg­eta­bles in when you know that every litre is made up of 1,375 olives that took 47 min­utes to pick.

Now, on Sat­ur­day morn­ing, six of us picked 20 box­es of olives with the assis­tance of the elec­tric rake. By my cal­cu­la­tions, if all of us man­u­al pick­ers picked the same aver­age as the pick­ers of 1992 and 1993, that means the elec­tric rake dou­bled our pro­duc­tiv­i­ty.

Here’s my reck­on­ing. 4 pick­ers picked from (I’m guess­ing — I got there late) 7:30 until 12:30. That’s 20 pick­er-hours. Add to that the 4 hours pick­ing I did, plus the 3 hours Domi did. At 7.1 kilos an hour, that should have yield­ed 191 kilos of olives, or 9.5 box­es. So the rake picked an addi­tion­al 10.5 box­es on top of what we would have expect­ed. That’s a lot of olives. 52,500 to be exact. Or 42 addi­tion­al litres of oil.

The rake also speeds things up in that you don’t have to set as many lad­ders. Or climb as many trees. But there’s where the biggest down­sid­es have to be con­front­ed: the aes­thet­ics of the expe­ri­ence.

I admit, I gave a try to the thing. And when I went back to pick­ing by hand, I felt slow. But I also found myself leav­ing the high stuff for the machine. Why climb? The machine will get it. Why reach? The machine can pick those olives twice as fast as I can. And so it begins — the mech­a­ni­sa­tion of an ancient human expe­ri­ence.

And there was some­thing else I missed. A sound. Only if you’ve heard it can you appre­ci­ate the sound of olives bounc­ing from the rungs of a wood­en lad­der in the qui­et of a Novem­ber Umbri­an day. When the rake is around, you hear the rake.

So where would McTag­gart stand on this? I reck­on he’d take one look at the stats, and buy four of the things. He may have been an aes­thete, but he was also a cap­i­tal­ist. And any­thing that made the har­vest move that much more quick­ly would have been worth it to him.

Me, I’ve got my doubts, though they are the doubts of one far away from the prospect of get­ting the job done. If you had asked me in the first week of the har­vest, with per­haps five weeks of some­times mind-numb­ing and phys­i­cal­ly exhaust­ing labour in front of me if I’d take up a giz­mo that would cut the whole expe­ri­ence short by a week or two, I’d prob­a­bly have leapt on it.

But may­be not. It may be slow­er and more imprac­ti­cal, but there was some deep pan­the­is­tic mag­ic in climb­ing into a tree that was around when Christ walked the Earth, with a lad­der that had not var­ied in design since anoth­er mil­len­nia before that, pick­ing a fruit that had graced the tables of Socrates and Aris­totle, and feel­ing at one with that con­tin­u­ous line of nature and human civ­i­liza­tion. That’s just not the kind of sen­ti­ment aroused by a motor on a stick.

10 thoughts on “How many olives to make a bottle of oil?”

  1. I’ll think of sal­ads dif­fer­ent­ly from now on!

    Slaver? Did you mean “Slather?”


    Bri­an replies:

    Whoops. Spellcheck is not proof­read­ing. Spellcheck is not proof­read­ing. Spellcheck is not proof­read­ing.

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