Harvesting for a Cause: Picking Olives in Mediterranean Malta

Strolling some Mediterranean sidewalks during the late-autumn months, it’s not unusual to see shriveling olives wasting away on the ground. There are, of course, locals who spirit away buckets of a forgotten tree’s olives, or the odd pigeon that might take a peck at the bitter fruit, but it’s been my observation that a considerable amount of urban olives go to waste.

Enter enterprising University of Malta Professor, Dr. David Mifsud. Late last year, Shawn received an email from the university inviting students and community members to participate in an olive harvest being led by David. As something that’s been on our must-do list for some time, Shawn and I jumped at the chance to spend a few hours as volunteer olive pickers. We were also thrilled to hear that this Mediterranean staple was being harvested for a cause. The olives picked would be pressed into oil, bottled and sold, all to benefit charities serving Maltese residents with special needs or illness.

Though our meeting point for the harvest was the university campus, I was expecting that we’d soon be ushered to a picturesque olive grove elsewhere on the tiny island to lend our muscle.

“No, the olive trees are right here on campus,” said enthusiastic David. “We can walk to them!”

Given the plethora of concrete around, I was initially doubtful that there would be many trees nearby. Nevertheless, David was soon herding us to a campus street lined with trees studded with green, black and aubergine-colored olives. In one direction, we saw densely-packed residential areas framed by cacti, in another the domes and spires of Valletta’s stunning skyline.

The Picking Process

The olive picking process itself isn’t very complicated, but it can be hard work. You can harvest the fruit by hand, or with a short or long-handled rake. With the former method, you simply remove the olive from the branch, and toss the fruit into a bucket or basket; with the latter two approaches, you lay a tarp on the ground, comb the olives from the branches and be careful not to step upon them as they accumulate around your feet. Eventually, you consolidate a tarp’s contents into larger vessels, then take them to a facility where the oil can be extracted. Mechanical pickers exist too, but we did not use any.

The sooner the olives can be pressed the better, for that generally leads to lower acidity levels. Other factors, such as an olive’s variety, coupled with the production method used to press it, also determine an oil’s acidity level.

As we plucked olives from branches, the idea made me, Shawn and other participants ponder what additional organizations in Malta – or beyond – could benefit from such a project. From animal-welfare groups, to educational institutions, the opportunities really are endless.

In all, David’s initiative earned about 1,000 Euros for charity. Aside from the feelings of goodwill that were fostered, the olive oil itself is something to be savored! Shawn and I purchased a bottle last month, and have delusions that the bottle will never run dry. It’s simply that good!

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If you find yourself inspired to facilitate a similar initiative, David was kind enough to answer my questions about the project. Hopefully his words might inspire you to harvest an otherwise-forgotten resource in your neck of the woods too!

Have you participated in a harvest of any sort? If so, what and where did you pick? How was it?

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An Interview with David, the Project’s Founder

Tricia: How did you get the idea to harvest the olives on the University of Malta campus?

David: I used to see all these olive trees with olives unharvested on campus. I think that there are over 100 olive trees there. Some of the younger trees are 7-10 years of age, but others are at least 20 to 30 years old. Obviously, these older trees produce more olives.

I wrote to the Rector of the University, Prof. Juanito Camilleri, about this idea and he immediately agreed and gave me the green light to go ahead with it. University employees Amanda Ciantar and Ms. Maromia helped me to promote the project by sending e-mails to all University of Malta personnel.

Tricia: You mobilized approximately 30 volunteer olive pickers and then harvested olives together on two separate days. In all, roughly how many kilograms of olives did you pick? How many liters of olive oil were produced? 

David: We harvested about 430 kilos of olives on both occasions, producing about 45 liters of olive oil.

Next came the pressing and bottling. There are only about 6-8 individuals offering this service in Malta. As soon as I told Bezzina Brothers (near Gianpula) our intention to sell the olive oil for charity, the company immediately offered to do the olive pressing for free. Otherwise, we would have had to pay more than 100 Euros for pressing fees. They were really kind to us.

The olive pressing was done on the same day of the olive harvest, because pressing olives on the same day as they were picked produces the best results for olive oil.

In all, we made about 1000 Euros from the sale of the olive oil. The university bought very nice bottles which can hold half a liter of this extra virgin olive oil and we sold the bottles for 12 Euros each. Daniel Spagnol, a graphic designer who is a great friend of mine, designed the label for free and the university printing press decided to print the labels at no cost.

Tricia: This is your first time facilitating a olive-picking project. What did you most enjoy about the experience?

David: I enjoyed all of it – meeting new people, finding the volunteers. Olive cultivation is a subject I like so much, so I tried to do something positive with what I learned.

Tricia: Doing something positive with what you learned – I like that! Are you planning a similar project for next year?

David: Yes, I hope to have the energy and enthusiasm to do this event next year. Many people want to participate now that they saw that it worked and now that they have tasted the excellent oil!

A church dome and church steeple make up Valletta's skyline
An urban olive grove with a view: Valletta’s handsome skyline, as seen from the University of Malta campus. Olive trees were introduced to Malta during ancient times, and the Phoenicians and Romans cultivated them extensively. Though olives were eventually largely forgotten on Malta – in favor of other crops like cotton and oranges – farmers here have recently started growing them again.
A long-handed rake rests in a pile of purple olives
We picked the olives by hand, or ‘combed’ them, using a long or a short-handled rake.
Purple and green olives on a harvesting net.

A man sorts through olives in a basket.
The energetic brainchild of the olive-picking-for-charity project: Dr. David Mifsud (right)
Maltese Olives
Shawn moving a harvesting net (left) and a volunteer picking by hand (right).
Olive Picking Malta
Shawn (right) and another volunteer trying to rid the olives of unnecessary foliage. The baskets we used held about 15-25 kilos of olives. One hundred kilos of olives (220 pounds) produces roughly 10 liters of olive oil (2.5 gallons).
Residential buildings near the University of Malta campus.
Residential neighborhoods surround parts of the University of Malta campus. Malta is one of the most densely populated countries in the world.
Prickly Pear Cactus and a Lizard on a branch in Malta
Mediterranean flora & fauna: a Prickly Pear Cactus (left) and a lizard (right).
Picking Olives Malta

Olive Picking Malta Tricia and Shawn
Of the three harvesting approaches, Shawn and I found that the long-handed rake offered the best upper-body workout!
Picking Maltese Olives

Picking Maltese Olives

Olive Picking Malta
Olive pickers of all ages and nationalities – ranging from Maltese to German, American, Czech, and Kazakhstani – filled buckets with olives for this deserving cause.
Valletta Malta
Olive trees frame the UNESCO World Heritage City of Valletta.
Harvesting Olives Valletta Malta

A basket of purple olives on the left, and a bottle of olive oil on the right.
The finished product (right) turned out to be exquisite: a beautiful rich color, and delightfully-pungent flavor. Selling at €12 a bottle, the olive oil raised about 1,000 Euros for charity.

Our Video of This Experience:

Where in the World?

Planning Pointers:

  • An olive harvest period varies based upon a given year’s growing conditions. In Malta, for example, 2015’s olives were harvested around October through the end of November. We participated in this harvest in mid-November.
  • From all accounts, the University of Malta will pick more olives for charity next year too. If you’re a student at the university, watch for an official university email announcing the harvest days, or email Dr. David Mifsud. Visitors to Malta might also have luck checking in with Malta’s Tourism Authority to see if other similar opportunities exist.
  • Need more inspiration? This link contains an index of all my posts from Malta.

Photography & text © Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

Published by Tricia A. Mitchell

Tricia A. Mitchell is a freelance writer and photographer. Born in Europe but raised in the United States, she has lived in Valletta, Malta; Heidelberg, Germany; and Split, Croatia. An avid globetrotter who has visited more than 65 countries, she has a penchant for off-season travel. Tricia has learned that travel’s greatest gift is not sightseeing, rather it is the interactions with people. Some of her most memorable experiences have been sharing a bottle of champagne with distant French cousins in Lorraine, learning how to milk goats in a sleepy Bulgarian village, and ringing in the Vietnamese New Year with a Hanoi family. She welcomes any opportunity to practice French and German, and she loves delving into a place’s history and artisanal food scene. A former education administrator and training specialist, Tricia has a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a master’s degree in international relations. She and her husband, Shawn, married in the ruins of a snowy German castle. They’ve been known to escape winter by basing themselves in coastal Croatia or Southeast Asia. Her writing has appeared in Fodor’s Travel, Frommer’s, and International Living.

38 thoughts on “Harvesting for a Cause: Picking Olives in Mediterranean Malta

      1. Hi. Unfortunately, I have not seen yet. But, I saw Santorini Mykonos,Rodhos,Girit,Thessaloniki, Athens, Venezia, Florence, Rome, Milano, San Gimignano, Tuscany, Siena,…

        Have you been to Turkey? Please check my blog.

      2. Nazan, indeed I have been to Turkey, though only to Istanbul, so I would like to explore more there! Turkey, I would guess, produces lots of olive oil. Have you ever participated in a harvest, or perhaps do you have friends or family who have olive trees in their gardens?

        It sounds as though you’ve seen a lot of the Mediterranean; your photos of Cappadocia’s ubiquitous balloons are lovely.

  1. Tricia what a great, unique initiative! Just shows that if there is a ’cause’ you are working for selflessly, help pours in from all quarters. I lobe olives and would have happily participated and eaten a lot of them too :) Several years back there was a Malta national champion in Billiards Mr Paul Mifsud. Maybe related to Dr Mifsud you met? I have heard of some similar initiative for fallen apples in Himachal Pradesh, India. Lovely post from you as always :)

    1. Kamal, thank you for your thoughtful comment, and for adding that a similar project was initiated for India’s apples. Do you know if Himachal Pradesh’s apples were sold for charity, or if they were given to organizations, perhaps schools?

      I especially like your words “if there is a ’cause’ you are working for selflessly, help pours in from all quarters.” Kudos here to Dr. David Mifsud, in particular, who saw an opportunity and spearheaded this project! As for a relation to the Maltese billiards champion, I’ll have to ask David, or perhaps he’ll chime in here. :)

      1. I am not sure about that Tricia, tbh. This was way back in the late ,90s when we visited an orchard and learnt that sometimes the trucker doesn’t turn up for days and so they just “have to give the apples away”. Don’t think it was as well organized and effort as yours. Sharing this blog, hoping others get inspired. Best wishes :)

      2. That’s insightful to hear about the disconnect between the pickers and the transporters, Kamal, but I’m glad the apples didn’t go to waste. Your anecdote reminds me of the situation in Moldova last year, when apples that were usually Russia-bound, didn’t sell because of food bans. We saw that the airlines and schools were the recipient of many of these extra apples, and we even met one entrepreneur who was putting them in cold storage for a few month, planning to sell them later when the region’s supply would be lower. Thank you for sharing this piece – it’d be lovely if David’s project could inspire others!

    1. Tricia, Malta indeed has some lovely corners. (I’m particularly drawn to the countryside and coastal areas, and the more-urban spots for some pretty architecture). As for the taste of this oil, it’s so good that we mostly use it as a condiment – more like a dressing, and not for cooking. We’ve already consumed about 90% of our precious bottle. :)

  2. What a fun thing to do Tricia. Preventing waste, raising much needed funds and being part of the creation of a delicious end-product – this is an excellent project and I enjoyed reading about it very much. I like the way the other local businesses offered their services for free. It’s a real community project.

    1. Carol, it’s true that this was a “real community project” and it’s one that got me thinking about what can be accomplished with a little hard work, creativity and collaboration. Because of the success of this year’s project, and word spreading about how delicious the resulting olive oil was, I hope next year’s version will be even bigger. As I recall, David said that his volunteers had only harvested a small portion of the university’s trees! I’m sad that we probably won’t be living on Malta then, but I look forward to similar pursuits in other corners of the world.

      I recently heard that olive cultivation is a growing industry in Australia – have you heard much about Australian olives and oil?

      1. Thanks for mentioning your experience at Bunnyconnellen Olive Grove and Vineyard, Carol. I found it especially interesting that the land was converted from a dairy farm to a landscape dominated by olive trees and vineyards.

      2. We went through a ten year drought in the 1990s and 2000s and many dairy farms shut down or converted to other ways of making a living. The country in this area is beautiful but it doesn’t rain much sometimes so it’s better suited to olives and grapes.

  3. It wouldn’t work too well in north east England, Tricia, but I’m sure there’s a place for it in the Algarve. In the meantime you’ve sent me scurrying to our fridge for my jar of olives :)

    1. Haha, it’s funny how our online consumption can influence our cravings, Jo! I haven’t been to Portugal in years, but would surely like to get back there to do more exploring, and perhaps olive or grape picking. The Pena National Palace looks particularly interesting, and I’d love to get back to the Douro Valley as well. Ah, the allure of the Mediterranean…

  4. On a recent autumn in Tuscany we lazily sat and watched our neighbour pick his olives from the trees in his garden – not for pressing but for putting in jars. Though he did disappear for days to help friends pick their olives for pressing. Elderly mother (well into her eighties) appeared occasionally, surveyed the trees and took middle-aged son to task over his diligence. When the olives were picked to her satisfaction mother took charge of the process from there on. Asked how the olives were processed and what was used, our neighbour shrugged his shoulders. Mamma kept it all a secret. He was only able to enjoy the finished product. I think that suited him fine.

    Olive picking tends to be a very social event, with many families returning home to take part in the olive harvest.

    1. Dorothy, I enjoyed being whisked off to Tuscany, if only for a moment thanks to your charming anecdote. As I first started reading it, I thought how I’d like to ask you what the man did to next prepare the olives for jarring. Now I see that tidbit shall have to remain a mystery, thanks to Mamma being hushed about the operation. Did you get a chance to sample any of the prized olives?

  5. Hi I am Oscar.. I don’t know if I understood what you explaned me by email. Its mean that I could apply to go to Malta and support a foundation? I would like to goto Malta but I would like to know if it is possible to go to work and get a job for experience or study at the same time.. Is it possible>? thanks for every information you can give me..

  6. Thank you so muchfor sharing this story. The world needs more people like Professor Mifsud – someone who saw fruit going to waste and turned it into an opportunity to made the world a better place – and more positive stories like this. Here in California, students at Stanford University started a similar volunteer based project called the Stanford Gleaning Project. Started in 2009, this volunteer student organization harvests excess fruit (apples, lemons, oranges, persimmons …) from the Stanford campus for donation to underserved populations in the San Francisco Bay Area, via food banks and shelters. Thanks again for the lovely post.

    1. Carolyn, my husband and I agree that it would be great to clone the Dr. Mifsuds of the world. :)

      I’m really enjoying hearing others’ stories in the comments about communities making a difference by ensuring fruit doesn’t go to waste! Thank you for mentioning Standord’s Gleaning Project, too; what an inviting variety of fruit they rescued there.

    1. Many thanks, Jimmy! With parents from the Mediterranean, I wonder if you’ve ever participated in an olive harvest? It was our first, and we’re already wondering where we’ll be for the next picking season. :)

      1. I’m also eager to see more American national parks, Lauren. I have distinct memories of Yellowstone from a childhood visit there, and would love to get to Yosemite as well. We tried to go to Yosemite last spring, but the weather was unusually snowy for that time of year. A few weeks later, as we flew from the States back to Europe, we got a stunning aerial view of Yosemite from the airplane. That was a special way to see it for the first time.

  7. Hi Tricia!

    I came across your blog and it was nice to see that you shared your experience about olive-picking and its charitable cause at University.

    I thought I’d share with you a bit of the history of this lovely protected valley known as Wied Ghollieqa, and these olives planted there some 15 years ago by Nature Trust. Way back in 1989, an NGO called ARBOR – founded by a group of University students, managed to halt the development of this valley by the University. It was earmarked to become a Science Park deep in the valley and the Engineering Building in the upper part of the valley. A petition was then organized against such a proposal, and Arbor even compiled a scientific report, which was presented to various Ministers and other University officials. The Science Park was eventually transferred to Mosta, whereas the Engineering department was built on another site, although the car park (car park 1) was still unfortunately built. During late 1989 and early 90s the first trees were planted – many of which are still there. These included oak, pine, cypress, ash and poplar trees. This was all prior to the Development Planning Act, which does not allow any development in valleys.

    Wied Ghollieqa is now a declared Nature Reserve in accordance with Legal Notice 144/1993 of the Environment Protection Act. Parts of Wied Ghollieqa are scheduled as Level 1and Level 2 Areas of Ecological Importance (AEI) and Level 1 Site of Scientific Interest according to Structure Plan Policies RCO 10 and 11 of the Development Planning Act of 1992.

    In 1999, Arbor merged with another NGO SSCN to form Nature Trust which is now responsible for the management of the Reserve under the criteria of the Planning Authority. In January 2000, Nature Trust (Malta) launched the Green 2000 Millennium Project. This consisted of the planting of thousands of Mediterranean trees including olive trees, over the next years in the Wied Ghollieqa Nature Reserve.

    As you can imagine – this entails a lot of hard work – which includes watering the trees especially during the summer season, and monitoring the site against vandalism, control of alien species, and maintaining rubble walls.

    We are also obliged by the Planning Authority to become self-sustainable in terms of funding and one way of doing this is by harvesting products from the valley and selling them. This includes honey, carob syrup harvested from carob trees, and olive oil – which we harvested also this year coincidentally for the first time. Of course, there are plenty of olive trees which we planted some 15 years ago, to go for other charitable causes. But as you might understand, we believe that charity begins at home and we did also harvest our first olives this year and cold-pressed them (although not for free) – and sold them. Funds are very much needed and these go for maintenance of the valley , buying water (since the existing wells are not enough), repairing of rubble walls, buying machinery (weed cutters, chainsaw, etc) and security related monitoring. Should you wish more information about our current work, please check us out on Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/naturetrustmalta

    1. Thank you for sharing a bit about Wied Ghollieqa, its olive trees, the wonderful products produced there, and some of the work Nature Trust Malta does! I’ve sought out your Facebook page, and look forward to hearing more about your activities. In the meantime, I’m curious – where can one buy some of the natural products you’ve mentioned above? (honey, olive oil, carob syrup, etc)?

  8. Such a great project! Glad to read the long version here. Photos look like they are out of a magazine spread!

    1. Peggy, David’s project really was a great one. It’s left me wishing olives could be harvested more frequently than just once a year – not only because it was a fun afternoon, but also because we’ve just finished our bottle of delectable olive oil. Thanks also for your kind words about the photos; coming from a talented lady such as yourself, that’s high praise.

      1. Ah! You’re too nice, thanks Tricia. :)) I mean it though!! Great pics.

        Yes, I can understand! Amazing olive oil always seems to disappear in a flash, doesn’t it??

  9. What a great look into a cultural piece of Malta (and olives, which are amazing not just for the oil but great to eat too). How great it must have been to have been part of this harvest…great people, great experience and also a great work-out :-) Keep on with the adventures ~ you and Shawn look like your enjoying your time there.

    1. Randall, more adventures to come, for sure! It’s funny how so many of our favorite moments here have involved harvests – everything from olives, to wild asparagus, to oranges. Malta is a densely-populated place, so to have that opportunity to connect with nature is a special thing. Hope you’re in the midst of a wonderful weekend. :)

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