The olive tree has always been of great historical and economic importance for countries like Greece, Italy, and Spain. In recent years, more and more olive growers are considering the transition from conventional to organic cultivation of olive trees and thus the production of organic olive oil or table (edible) olives. Cultivating organically can be officially certified, offering a financial profit for the farmer who achieves multiple prices for his/her products, compared to conventional olive oil.
Now let’s see the steps that a conventional olive grower should follow to make a successful transition to an organic cultivation system. What should he know in advance so as not to have any unpleasant surprises on the way?
Let’s start with some basic definitions.
Organic olive oil is produced by specific processes that are entirely environmentally (and human) friendly, following the clear and explicit regulations of the European Union concerning Organic Agriculture. These regulations ensure that the olive trees have grown without chemical plant protection products (pesticides), synthetic fertilizers, and herbicides.
The certification of an olive oil as organic does not depend only on what happens in the field. It also includes the processes implemented in the oil mill and extends up to the bottling stage.
It is obvious that eventually, the yield of an organic olive grove will be less than that of a conventional, mainly due to the lack of drastic actions during fertilization and plant protection.
Thus, it is more probable to lose part of the production due to a disease outbreak or a pest infestation. On the other hand, the farmer can sell his/her organic products at significantly higher prices. This increased pricing comes as a reward for implementing methods that contribute to protecting the environment, the conservation of biodiversity, and sustainability.
Regarding the regulatory framework, the procedure is as follows:
The producer needs to find a certification body (an organization offering such certifications) and form a contract. The Inspection and Certification Organizations of Organic Products are private companies that the state has approved to provide such services.
The producer pays these companies, and their job is to check and certify that all organic farming standards are met. To verify this, specialized representatives make planned and sudden-surprised visits to the field to collect various soil or plant tissue samples. These samples are sent to the laboratory for chemical analysis to reveal any irregularities (e.g., chemical traces).
The grower must then declare to the Integrated Management and Control System (IACS) that his/her cultivation in a specific field is organic. It would be helpful for the farmer to consult a local agronomist for all the organic cultivation methods he can apply. The agronomist needs to be a licensed professional with a good overview and knowledge of the local factors that may jeopardize the plant’s health and productivity (e.g., an outbreak of a disease in the area). The proximity of the agronomist is vital since, at some point, he will need to visit the olive grove urgently to diagnose a problem (e.g., estimate the population of an insect in a trap) and suggest a customized way of action. The agronomist can also make the necessary dossier so that the organic farmer can apply for the corresponding subsidies. Through the IACS declaration, the producer has the right to apply as a candidate for special programs related to organic farming.
For the first three years after the declaration, the olive grower is in a transitional stage and is not yet entitled to sell his/her product as organic. However, he must fully comply with the protocol of organic farming methods. If all the necessary criteria, set by the certification body, are met, the farmer can legally sell the olive oil with the special organic tag-label, from the fourth year of the program onwards.
Finally, the oil mill must be certified as well, or the whole effort of producing organic olive oil is at risk. In the fourth year, the farmer must bring his/her olives to a certified olive mill. Beforehand, he must submit a written application for receiving the corresponding certification that the mill has. The farmer should not neglect this part of the procedure because the standardization company will request this document.
The Philosophy and the Basic Principles of Organic Olive Farming
The aspirant organic farmer needs to consider his/her olive grove as a closed natural system (with the minimum possible inputs and outputs). Based on that, he needs to treat his/her crop as a separate ecosystem with very few inputs and outputs, where most of the elements are recycled inside the olive grove, ensuring sustainability.
For example, after pruning, rather than removing cut branches or burning them (as is usually the case in conventional farming), organic farmers crush them with special machinery, decimate the tree’s branches, and deposit the sawdust on the soil. This has beneficial effects, as it has been calculated that we are adding 4 kg (8.8 pounds) of nitrogen, 0.5 kg (1.1 pounds)of phosphorus, 4 kg (8.8 pounds) of potassium, 5 kg (11 pounds) of calcium, and 1 kg (2.2 pounds) of magnesium, for every 1,000 kg (2,205 pounds)of olive wood (with 50% moisture) incorporated into the soil (Amirante. et al., 2002). This method reduces the need for additional chemical fertilizers, the majority of which are not allowed in organic farming. In this way, we have the least possible inputs and outputs and promote the recycling of the elements within the olive orchard. There are, of course, cases in which tree branches must be removed immediately from an organic orchard, for example, when a tree tissue suffers from a pest or a disease.
A second factor that the organic farmer must understand is the risk of contamination of his/her products from external sources. This does not refer only to the use of chemical pesticides. Many common lubricants (e.g. chain oils) used in machines like harvesters and chainsaws contain hydrocarbon mineral oils (carcinogenic) that can contaminate fruits, soil, or water source during harvest or pruning. For this reason, organic farmers often prefer vegetable lubricants that degrade entirely in the soil within a short time and are considered safe for groundwater.
Organic olive farming encourages producers to use local-traditional varieties, which are more resistant to diseases and enemies of the area. Additionally, these varieties are better adapted to the soil and the local environmental conditions of the region. Finally, it needs to be clear that the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and their products are not allowed in organic farming.
In organic olive farming, the location of the olive grove is essential. Each area has unique climatic and soil conditions that affect the prosperity of the trees. Therefore, we need to pay special attention to the following:
- Frost-prone areas with limited sunshine are not suitable for establishing an organic olive grove.
- The organic olive grove should not be neighboring with a conventional. That “isolation ” would prevent contamination from the chemicals used in conventional cultivation methods (consult the certification body).
- When the organic olive farm is adjacent to conventional crops, the grower needs to manage the effluent water that can also have been contaminated with chemicals (consult the certification body).
- It is necessary to study the local climatic and soil conditions of the olive grove to adjust the plan of action.
- In cases where the olive grove is neighboring conventional crops, the farmer needs to inform the other local producers and stay in touch with them. The organic grower may request the adjacent conventional colleagues not to spray their trees on days when strong winds are blowing and can carry droplets of the chemicals. That will reduce the risk of contamination of the organic orchard.
Furthermore, he must inform (e.g., by placing signs) the crew performing pest management control of olive fruit fly (Dacus). That way, the team will avoid applying techniques that are not suitable for organic farming.
How to prune an organic olive grove
Pruning is especially important in an organic olive grove. This activity provides better airflow inside the canopy of the trees, reducing the risk of pathogen infection. In addition, pruning reduces the density of trees’ crown and ensures better access to sunlight.
Finally, well-pruned trees remain at an optimal height facilitating practices such as harvesting. Every year pruning for fruit production is applied to the trees, while in the young seedlings, the farmer needs to prune it is necessary to apply the pruning so that they acquire a durable frame.
The grower prune the young trees-seedlings to create a strong trunk and a crown frame.
Finally, this technique may also help to reduce the tree’s tendency to alternate bearing.
The grower must respect the ecosystem during pruning, ensuring as little pollutants, residues, and noise as possible. Modern olive growers are increasingly using modern rechargeable pruners that are more appropriate due to their low noise levels and the absence of pollutants.
The grower needs to take care soil fertility to avoid malnutrition of the trees and boost growth and productivity. More specifically, nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium are essential in vegetative growth stages. As conventional fertilizers are not allowed, the farmer can apply some of the following techniques to meet the nutrient requirements of olives:
The application of green manure in olive groves has become a method increasingly popular in recent years, especially important for organic cultivation. It begins with sowing an annual or perennial plant (vetch, alfalfa, forage bean) in the olive grove. This method improves soil fertility and soil structure. Additionally, it increases water absorption and the ability of the soil to retain moisture and contributes to weed management of harmful perennial and resistant weeds (especially if we sow vetch).
Legumes such as vetch, alfalfa, reptile clover, lupine, livestock bean and pea, etc, which enrich the soil with nitrogen, are widely used in green olive fertilization. Similarly, farmers may partly use cereals such as oats and barley. Given that these plants absorb significant amounts of nutrients, incorporating them into the soil provides readily available nutrients for our plants. In case the olive grower decides to apply green manure, it is necessary to use propagating material that is not Genetically Modified (GMOs).
Composting is a natural process in which specialized microorganisms, such as bacteria and fungi convert organic matter into humic substances. The final product of this process is the compost, which consists of a mixture of organic matter, nutrients, and trace minerals. It is a way of natural fertilization with excellent soil-improving properties. However, you should consult your local licensed agronomist before applying.
The Ground Cover
Soil cover is a technique that protects the soil from erosion and drought caused by high soil water evaporation. This technique is also helpful in weed control since it prevents their growth. For that purpose, the grower can use ground cover plants or organic matter. The materials used in the ground cover are straw, leaves, grass, sawdust, compost, etc.
Disease control for organic olive trees.
With no agrochemicals allowed, prevention is the key in organic olive farming to avoid any problems from plant diseases. The farmer can use pruning to open the crown and facilitate airflow, reducing the likelihood of a disease outbreak at his/her organic olive grove.
Additionally, approved products like copper-based fungicides are at organic farmers’ disposal. However, you should definitely consult a local agronomist before spraying.
In organic olive farming, pest management practices include preventive measures like pruning, ground cover, and the use of beneficial insects and insectivorous birds. Also, special color traps and approved products for organic farming enrich the armory of the grower. However, for these approved products, you need to consult an agronomist. Indicative examples of pest management are:
- The use of different types of traps is effective in the control of Olive fruit fly (Dacus oleae), Olive moth (Prays oleae), and Olive fruit curculio (Rhynchites cribripennis).
- Pruning is an important preventive measure against some insects, while the use of beneficial insects helps to control these enemies.
Harvesting of the organic olives.
The organic olive farmer needs to inform the certification body one day before the harvest. All machines used in mechanical harvest have to be thoroughly cleaned to avoid contamination of the olives and the grove. Modern olive farmers avoid harvesting with long wooden sticks to protect the plants and reduce injures. These injuries can act as a gateway for pathogenic microorganisms to enter and infect the plant and facilitate disease transmission.
To prevent this, more and more olive farmers choose to use harvesters that can transmit the vibration locally only to the branch they are interested in, without hurting the tree. These machines permit maximization of harvest efficiency and, at the same time, protect the plant tissues that will bear next year’s production. Additionally, modern organic farmers generally prefer to use rechargeable vibrating harvesters that leave no pollutants.
After harvest, the grower must contact the certification body again and declare the final amount of olives harvested.
The organic olive cannot be stored in the same place as the fruit of a conventional crop because there is a high possibility of contamination. Generally, after harvesting, the fruits need to be transported directly to the oil mill using plastic crates solely.
The olive oil extraction process
Suppose the oil mill processes olives both for conventional and organic groves. In that case, it is vital to clean the machines thoroughly before processing the organic olives so that the residues that may exist in the conventional fruits do not contaminate the organic oil. Also, the mill needs to give the grower a document stating that the product is organic.
The containers used in the standardization process need to be environmentally friendly, made out of stainless steel or glass. After standardization, to preserve the quality of the olive oil, we need to store it in a cool and shady place.
Exports of olive oil
The farmer needs to have a certificate stating that the olive oil is organic to export it abroad.
The process is relatively easy and standard when exported from one European country to another because all E.U. members follow the same production and certification protocol. However, when exporting organic olive oil outside E.U., a farmer can face some problems due to different legislation systems/rules.