Today more than 750 million olive trees are cultivated worldwide, the greatest number of which (c.95%) are planted in the Mediterranean region. In addition, there are at least fifty different varieties of olive, each with its own distinct characteristics. The main producing areas in Greece are Crete and the Peloponnese, where the most important variety for oil production is the Koroneiki. In Greece, there are an estimated 120,000,000 olive trees and 350,000 Greek families involved in olive tree cultivation.
You would think that the olive was specially made for Greece, so well does it thrive in most regions of the country. It loves the sea and the sun. The coastal regions have the perfect climatic conditions it needs and a suitable ecosystem for the tree to grow and bear fruit. The trees are slow to grow, taking four or five years to yield their first fruits and another 10 to 15 to reach their full capacity. Once established, however, the olive tree can live for many years. There are stories of trees which have stood for a thousand years.
Everything that happens to the olive tree, from pruning in spring through flowering and harvesting in the late autumn, will have a bearing on the quality of the fruit, and thus on the product. The bulk of the work associated with olive farming concentrates at two points in time: pruning and harvesting. Pruning is the first thing a farmer does after harvesting to prepare the tree for the next crop. There is a Greek saying which goes: “Water the olive tree and you beg it to give you oil; prune it well and you order it.” Very practical, given that water has a clear preference for fertile plains over the often poor, calcareous soil and rock of most Greek olive groves!
Harvest time in Greece is usually between October and January depending on autumn rainfall, and may even go on into February. The harvest is an extremely critical time as far as ripeness is concerned. Most growers want to produce as much good quality oil as possible and this means optimum ripeness, but if the olives are left on the trees too long they will over ripen and oxidize as soon as they are picked, producing unpleasant oil. In Greece olive harvesting still remains predominantly a “family affair”, with everyone contributing to the work: parents, grandparents (as long as they can still walk!), children back from school, and even members of the family who have opted for jobs in the city. In recent years a large influx of immigrants to Greece from the Balkans has also provided a ready seasonal work force.