Olive growing is a profession that has been handed down for centuries and, although the dedication of farmers has remained unchanged over time, methods have undergone incredible transformations. Olive harvesting is one of the main phases and until a few years ago it was carried out with purely manual systems.
Today, however, an increasingly advanced degree of mechanization is available to those who work in the sector, which helps to make these operations much easier and faster. Manual harvesting is therefore accompanied by two new systems: a semi-mechanized one, which is based on the support of tools such as harvesters and shakers, and a completely mechanized one, which uses big machines.
One of the questions that most frequently emerges in an increasingly automated context, concerns the consequences of using mechanical harvesting systems on the final quality of the olives or oil. Numerous studies have now been carried out and this is what can be understood from the tests carried out in the field.
Mechanization and quality of the product
If it is true that in general the mechanization of agricultural operations facilitates the farm productivity and reduces the necessary resources and costs, it is also important to ask oneself what the effects of the different harvesting methods on the parameters for evaluating the quality of the drupes or of the oil are.
If done gently, the completely manual harvest is the one that most respects the tree and the olive, avoiding any damage to both of them. What impact does the use of electric, pneumatic or engine-driven harvesters have instead? The results of the study show that the appearance and characteristics of the drupes harvested by means of half-automated methods are fully preserved. In terms of integrity, compactness of the pulp and oil yield, there are no significant differences between the hand-picked olives and those harvested with mechanical shakers or harvesters. Also the damages to the plant are extremely reduced or completely avoided with the use of this type of tools.
On the other hand, harvesting carried out with 100% mechanized means has the greatest impact on the quality of the olive, even if the technology evolution has managed to optimize the effects on the plant and to minimize any possible damages.
Speed and savings with mechanized harvesting
Given the possible negative effects on the olives, even if it is irrelevant in the context of half-mechanized harvesting, the use of these systems offers enormous advantages in terms of costs and working times. Thanks to the use of these harvesters it is possible, in fact, to obtain a result in the same amount of hours which is up to 4 times higher than manual harvesting.
The speed of mechanized operations makes the influence of climatic conditions less relevant. Thanks to the support of mechanical tools, the harvest days are significantly reduced, in favor of the quality of olives and oil.
Are there also effects on the olive oil quality?
To evaluate the quality of extra virgin olive oil, specific parameters are used, such as its acidity or the amount of polyphenols it contains. From the analysis carried out on the final product obtained with different, manual or half-mechanized harvesting methods, no important differences were found in the physical and organoleptic characteristics of the oil.
Considering, however, the olive storage phase, a quality deterioration has been highlighted. Specifically, when olives are harvested by means of big machinery, they undergo a significant deterioration of polyphenol content, volatile compounds and acidity. Therefore, the damage suffered during the harvesting phase can accelerate the qualitative decay of the drupes in the following one.
On the other hand, the use of simple tools, such as harvesters, does not compromise the properties of olives and oil, proving to be an efficient, practical and completely safe system.
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