I know it is not quite the end of the year, but it is a long time since I last posted, and the year end is going to be rather busy so I decided to write a synopsis of the events of 2015 now, at least in so far as my tiny piece of the earth is concerned.
It began very dry and rather cool although overnight minimum temperatures were just under freezing point with -2ºC being the coldest. It continued to be a year of low rainfall and it may well be the lowest annual precipitation since we came here in 2003, but 150mm before the end of the year will take us past the lowest we have so far recorded and that was 2004’s 541mm. We thought rainfall was generally under 600mm because that was what we received for the first 5 years we were here – with the exception of 2006. The last six years have been somewhat better. Of course distribution throughout the year is really of more consequence, and 2006 was also very dry, but 539mm in October and November of that year resulted in a total of 983mm. A misleading figure.
The weather has been the reason for the long delay in making another post. I was frantically irrigating so long as the water lasted, but supplies for irrigation ran out at the end of June. The next three months were a constant long day after long day battle carting water to the young olive trees to keep them alive. I lost four of the most recently planted and the crop from another three slightly older, but fortunately managed to get enough to the rest to keep them alive. Mature trees, with a similar mature root system, can withstand these few months without rain. That is the great advantage of olives; they will grow under arid conditions once they attain a reasonable size. They might not crop particularly well without supplementary water, but they will survive. For anyone familiar with real droughts as in Australia etc. it should be noted that we experience a few months of dry weather each summer, and there is always some rain in the autumn and winter.
We did not receive any really hot weather, four days at 36º being the hottest, but the nights were warmer than most years and this has resulted in the mean temperature for the year being above any previous one. 2014 was the hottest we have recorded and this year is on track to beat that, although a cold spell next month could reduce the annual figures, just as a lot of rain could alter that annual total.
Fortunately we received sufficient rain prior to the olive harvest to allow the fruit to reach a good size. Allowing for the young ages of the trees I was well pleased with the result. The quality was excellent and we sold every olive we picked. My wife and I picked 941kgs of olives individually into buckets held around our necks with bungee cords. This is the way to achieve the best quality. It also meant we did not need to run the crop over the grader to remove twigs, stems and damaged fruit.
If quality is down I need to accept that I can only take oil in exchange. I was also especially pleased that two old trees (that I retained when we grubbed out an old orchard) both topped 50kgs. A few years ago I would have considered that impossible, but as with all other crops I feed them liberally and control insect pests and fungal diseases. Many “authorities” around the world consider fertiliser should be restricted. I fertilise to replace nutrients removed in the previous year – prunings as well as the crop have to be taken into account, and the trees also need to grow and produce the current year’s crop too. Just like animals, plants need to be fed, watered and kept disease free if they are to thrive.
I kept the two trees because they had yielded consistently well in the first few years we were here, and had estimated crops of between 20 and 30kgs every year. The boxes we use for containing the olives between picking and delivering to the buyer hold 17kgs when full, and they are manufactured in such a way that each box is equally marked in three parts. If I want to know an approximate weight harvested from a particular tree it is easy to start a fresh box for that particular tree – and hopefully need another one too.
2014 showed a heavy crop on both so I decided to accurately weigh the crop from each tree. The result was 38.24 and 40.22kgs. The heavier yielding tree is quite a bit bigger. This year they yielded 53.33 and 59.00kgs. The bigger one was originally 58.98, but it is very difficult to hand pick every last olive on a big tree and when I had completed the weighing searched the tree for missed fruit. Sure enough there were a few so I managed to reach the 59kgs. I noticed two olives still on the tree yesterday, but I am not prepared to organise things for two olives. Next year will not be so heavy because I have reduced the height of them both, and pruned some branches that would lead to overcrowding in the canopy next year if left unpruned.
I built a picking platform (with safety rails) to fit in the box for the three point linkage of the tractor – along the lines of the platforms often referred to as “cherry pickers” and which you see being used to assist with putting Christmas lights in place in towns, or for maintenance of street lighting. I do not have the height lifting capacity of the machines used for these purposes and I do not need it. The platform I stand on is about shoulder height from the ground and sufficient that I harvested all trees without the need to use ladders, bending over branches too high to reach comfortably. Tree height will be kept to this maximum.
The lack of irrigation, and the necessity of keeping the olives alive, meant that the kitchen garden was a disaster. A few tomato plants kept themselves alive and that was the sum total of this year’s garden harvest. Weeds, as always, managed to keep going, and the garden is currently in a mess. Hopefully I will be able to get back to more normal management of the place over winter.
The last thing to suffer from my summer of water carting was getting in wood for the heating stove. Fortunately we have not yet had to light it, so it should be a short season for its use, and I do have some wood already prepared, so I just need to keep pace with its use and we will get through. I am still using the stumps of old olives we grubbed out a few years ago. I bust these up into suitable sized pieces with a heavy block splitter and steel wedges. Heavy work, but it is a better workout than using my home gym. I am sure I will live longer by doing this type of work – and, of course, following the Mediterranean peasants’ usual diet of lots of meat, animal produce in general in fact, and plenty of wine. Olive oil, fruit and vegetables are also consumed, and I have the extra of generous helpings of butter at every available opportunity.