Frustration in the Sunset olive groves/What’s the Best Way To Pick an Olive Tree?

November 26, 2008 | By | Comments (5)

Team Olive is frustrated.

Our beautiful big olive trees are loaded with fruit again, tantalizing us with the promise of olive oil.


There’s nothing we can do about it this year, though. That’s because we decided —out of deference to Team Bee—not to treat the trees last spring for olive fruit-fly maggots (the spray may have killed the bees), so once again they’re radically infested. It’s a good thing our chickens snap them up like candy.

Any ideas about how to spray olive trees in a bee-safe way? It looks as though Spinosad is the most effective organic spray (we don’t use pesticides), but we’re not quite sure how to apply it so it doesn’t doom Betty and Veronica. And we would really, really like to press our own olives next year.

The least we could do was figure out our other problem: How to harvest our giant trees. Most commercial growers top off their trees at around 9 feet to keep them easy to pick. Ours are probably 40 feet tall and surrounded by bushes, walls, and other lovely and totally inconvenient landscaping elements.

With no actual picking to do this year, we decided to at least learn something for next season. So, on Monday, I went as Team Olive’s emissary off to UC Davis.

There, Dan Flynn, director of the Olive Center, heads a team of pickers that harvest the university’s giant old trees. Every year, they turn what had been a liability–bikers skidding on slippery fallen olives–into really great UC Davis olive oil.

I met up with Dan in one of the groves.



Left: Two of UC Davis’s 2,000 olive trees. (These are Rubra, a Spanish variety.)
Right: Dan talking to the crew.

With giant tarps spread beneath the trees to catch the falling olives, his crew was using 3 methods to pick: pneumatic rakes (which look sort of like Venus flytraps, and chew off the olives faster than the eye can see); regular garden rakes; and their hands.


Pneumatic rake.

This thing is just too heavy and expensive, I decided, to be useful to us. Then Dan showed me the regular rake method. “Just whack. You’ll get about 30 olives off at once.”



My technique left a lot to be desired, but some olives were coming off, anyway. Unfortunately, this rakeing business doesn’t work so well when you’re standing on a ladder. You feel like you’re about to topple backwards.

So, in the end, I think the best route for us will be hand-picking, just like we did last year at Valencia Creek. This means we won’t need tarps–just a couple of ladders, a few buckets, and our team, ready to pick. It’s cheap, it’s easy, and with a few of us working together, we ought to be able to get a few hundred pounds from the lower limbs of our trees.

Now if we can just get rid of the bugs…


  1. Jaye

    Where did you order the Rubra Trees from?

    May 23, 2009 at 4:06 pm
  2. Margo True

    Lee, we’d love to do just that…but the hives are heavy and the spraying would need to happen weekly during the spring and summer (all the way up until harvest). We’re exploring several options, including blocking the mouths of the hives in the early morning, spraying fast, and then letting the spray dry before unblocking the hives (we’ve heard a theory that dried spinosad doesn’t pose a threat to bees). More to come.

    December 3, 2008 at 3:20 am
  3. Margo True

    Georgia, thank you very much for your references. Forage Oakland-how cool is that?!

    Your “found” olive trees reminds me of just such a tree I walked by on a little dirt path in Ojai, CA this Thanksgiving. It was loaded with fruit and I itched to strip it clean.

    December 3, 2008 at 3:18 am


    December 2, 2008 at 3:26 am

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