We were fearful. The whole town knew from early on that it was going to a bad year for all countries. By the time lockdown started in March, the olive trees were in flower. Nobody expected the impact of the Coronavirus to get as bad as it did. If the harvest was also poor, if we suffered a fruit-fly infestation, if the weather was bad at the wrong times . . . the entire year could be a disaster on many fronts. The town was right to be worried.

Colletorto is an olive town

The growers here are mostly small farmers. They depend on their own labour and skill to provide a supply of excellent olive oil for their families. Knowledge and expertise is handed down through the generations and not a great deal has changed regarding olive growing, care and harvesting.

The population is less than 2,000 and many of those who are not olive farmers depend on the olive industry for their own livelihoods. Our family is one of those. We own the olive mill and so depend on good harvests to keep the wheels turning every year.

Olive farming methods here are organic and sustainable, with respect and care for the environment a high priority. Pesticides and chemical fertilizers are not used, which helps make our oil such a high-quality product. Farmers grow for their own consumption and sell their surplus to our family, who bottle and market it under the Timperio brand. These families want only pure, untainted, olive oil.

Olive harvest is such a joyous event in our town

Especially in the great years, when the quality is exceptional. It’s not just a question of incomes and livelihoods – it’s the sheer pride and pleasure that the farmers and their families feel at producing the very best extra virgin olive oil (EVOO).

The harvesting season in our part of the world takes place once a year, in October, November, and sometimes it stretches into early December too. Farmers haul loads of their olive to our mill using mostly their agricultural tractors and trailers. They book a slot and arrive with their families on the appointed day, full of good feelings with smiles all around. It is such a great social event.

When the olives are being processed, they sit and chat, drink coffee or a little wine, and laugh a lot. My parents invite them to share coffee and pastries, and to catch up on all the happenings in the town and amongst their neighbours. It’s a big deal in a small town – the highlight of a whole year of planning, hope, worry and sheer hard work at times.

That’s why the 2020 harvest was an especially big deal. The good news is that the fruit fly did not materialise. The weather was perfect at the right times, with enough rain when it was needed and plenty of sunshine to ripen the olives.

How COVID disrupted the harvesting season

This year, we found ourselves in a very unique situation. Right at the start of the harvest season – in the middle of October – the number of COVID cases in Colletorto spiked scarily high. In a town of fewer than 2,000 people, mostly elderly, we registered over 80 cases of COVID-19. Eventually, 2 people died. To date, almost everyone else has recovered.

This high incidence of COVID cases right in the middle of the production season meant we experienced tremendous operational challenges. In a situation where almost every farmer was having a family member affected by COVID (we are a very small community!), we had to put extraordinary safety precautions in place.

We quickly ramped up all our preventive measures including safety distancing, limiting the number of people that could access the production facility at the same time, installed several hand-sanitizers dispensers throughout the site, and checkpoints to ensure everyone was wearing a mask at all times (including both our personnel and visitors).

What actually happened during the 2020 olive harvest

Culturally, this has had tremendous implications. As written in this previous article of ours about what it’s like being an olive farmer, farmers leverage our milling services to obtain the oil they need for their own family’s yearly consumption.

When it’s their turn to bring their harvest to our mill, farmers typically spend the entire day with us. They might join our team and our family for lunch and we treat them with some coffee and pastries. As a sign of long-standing friendship, some farmers would bring us small gifts from their farms too (chickens, eggs, cheese, milk, etc.)

It’s how our olive harvests are remembered – of course by the quality and the yield, but also by whom they met, what was discussed, the jokes that made people roar with laughter and the food and drink that was shared around.

Because this year the “social part” of the harvesting season could not take place due to restrictions we had to put in place, many farmers – especially the older generation- were emotionally affected.

The moment where EVOO is produced is a moment of JOY. It’s the moment where farmers see their yearly work come to fruition, and want to live it fully, with us and with their friends and families. This year they could not live such a moment.

Happy ending – a superb olive harvest with high yield and exceptional quality

On the brighter side, in terms of production, the 2020 harvest has been fantastic – similar to 2019. Colletorto produced 15% to 20% higher yield than 2019, and with consistent high quality as proven by lab tests:

  • Acidity: 0.2% (Low is good and EVOO generally must have acidity less than 0.8%)

  • Peroxide value: 2.7 (Low is good. The average peroxide level in EVOO is 20 and high quality is defined as below 12. Reference values can be found here)

  • Expert EVOO connoisseurs assessed it and found our EVOO to be balanced, with that slight and pleasing kicking stinging sensation. Taste-wise, the 2020 production is similar to the 2019 product, although 2020 tastes slightly more balanced, and more towards the medium intensity (last year the EVOO was more intense – even in terms of stinging sensation).

People’s great qualities shine through in times of adversity

We want to highlight the tremendous dedication of the farmers, our staff and our customers, and thank them for it.

First, the farmers who, despite the incredibly difficult context, still carried on with the harvesting, ensuring a steady and rich supply of high-quality olives.

Next, we want to extend great praise to our personnel, management, and everyone involved with operations who worked hard despite the enormous challenges. They continued to work unrelentingly, with extended working hours/shifts, and they delivered truly outstanding results.

Finally, we also want to praise the entire community of customers, locally, nationally, and internationally, that continued to support us.

Thank you, each and every one.