Although the Greek government has declared a second COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, Greece’s olive harvest and olive oil production are continuing. Some seasonal labor shortages and mobility issues may cause minor delays, but several olive oil professionals remain optimistic that bottled Greek extra virgin olive oil will reach global consumers in good time.
Spyros Kaparelis of Olympian Treasure told Greek Liquid Gold he believes the lockdown “is not going to stop collection of the olives since the prime minister of Greece himself clearly stated that collecting the olives is a priority for Greece, and no obstacles due to coronavirus will be imposed on producers as long as they observe the health safety measures.” Farmers, seasonal laborers, and mill workers may proceed with their work if they have the proper certification and identification with them.
With the country already suffering from the effects of its spring lockdown and a vastly reduced tourist season, a new lockdown was imposed on November 7 in an effort to reverse this autumn’s significant increase in COVID-19 cases in Greece. Initially expected to last at least through November 29, and then extended several times, this involved the closure of most retail stores (with exceptions including food stores and pharmacies), as well as restaurants, bars, cafés, gyms, junior and senior high schools, and (starting November 16) elementary schools and kindergartens.
In Greece, people may leave their homes only after certifying that they are heading to jobs that cannot be done remotely—naturally including agricultural work--or by sending an SMS indicating which of six legal reasons justifies their outing. There was some initial confusion about what this means for family olive harvests, as opposed to professional farmers’ work. However, Vassilis Zampounis of Olivenews.gr reports, “it seems that both the harvest and the work in the mill will be carried out without any particular problems, as long as there is proper planning and good communication between producers and mills.”
Several of Greek Liquid Gold’s contacts confirmed news reports about shortages of foreign seasonal laborers, who usually come from Albania to help with the olive harvest but have had their movements restricted during the pandemic. This began before the current lockdown and continues to frustrate some olive farmers, but others have found solutions.
“Although in this condition any predictions may not be entirely certain,” George Kokkinos, President of the Nileas Producers Group in Messinia, Peloponnese, said he expects the olive harvest to last longer than usual throughout the country “due to a shortage of farm workers.” Nevertheless, he did not believe a November lockdown would affect the export of bulk olive oil, standardization of olive oil in Greece, or “the quality and quantity of the Greek bottled olive oil that will be exported.”
Evi Psounou Prodromou of Yanni’s Olive Grove in Chalkidiki, northern Greece says her team and the other producers of early harvest extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) in Chalkidiki have finished harvesting, but the regular harvest will continue there until the end of the year. She had “enough foreign workers in the olive groves, and we managed to end the harvest on time, but the harvesting costs were enormous this year”—18% instead of the usual 12%, due to new fees and requirements. Even so, Prodromou does not expect these costs to be passed on to consumers. She believes “the exporting companies will continue working, taking all the necessary measures for their workers’ health.” She already shipped the first batch of Yanni’s high quality EVOO abroad.
Thomais Skreti, who hopes to create her own olive oil brand, reports that she had “made arrangements with my staff on time,” hiring enough Albanian laborers to help with her harvest in Fthiotida, northwest of Athens. She suggests that those who did not plan ahead are running into more difficulties. “I was expecting two more [laborers], but they didn't make it,” so she and her team will need an extra week to finish the harvest, but she is not concerned about that.
Spyros Kaparelis also mentioned “a real shortage of workers with expertise in collecting olives who usually come from neighboring countries” to the Peloponnese peninsula. While he says seasonal workers from Asian countries may be available to work on the harvest, there are fewer of them, and they have less experience with this work. However, he does not “expect any difficulties with milling or bottling; also the exports continue as usual” with “great quality olive oil” from his area.
Dino Pierrakos of Laconiko Extra Virgin Olive Oil says their harvest in Laconia, Peloponnese has not run into any insurmountable challenges. “There may be some delays in getting the final product to the end consumer, but I don’t foresee any sudden stops” along the way. Given his team’s careful organization and efficiency, says Pierrakos, “it has been more difficult in that it is hard for us to do our everyday things and run around for little things that may arise,” but they are managing well with their “amazing harvest.”
Also managing well, Greek American Peter Liokareas made some big changes this year. Instead of traveling back and forth between his American home and his family olive groves in West Mani, Messinia around harvest time as he usually does, Liokareas obtained permission to bring his family to Greece for several months. Arriving after negative COVID tests, the whole family has been working on the Liokareas olive harvest by day, while the children focus on distance learning with their American schools by night as their father heads to the olive mill.
Liokareas explains, “I do not see any major problems with the lockdown, with regards to production and exporting. Last spring during the lockdown, we shipped several containers to the US, and everything seemed to go very smoothly. There will be some minor setbacks, with the inability to move and travel, but I don’t see this impacting the harvest. We are expecting a great crop this year, and we already completed a large part of our harvest before the lockdown began. At the olive mill, things have changed, and COVID measures are in effect, but we are used to this by now.”
This article was updated on December 8 to note that the lockdown has been extended several times (most recently to January 7, although the details on that extension had not been announced at the time of the update).
Thanks to Liokareas and Laconiko for the photos used with this article. The photos in the olive mill were taken before the lockdown, when mask wearing was not yet required in that area.
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