03 Nov

2008 Californian crop production could surpass that of France, official says

By Elizabeth Larson,

olive cultivationMoving along at a pace of about 2 acres per hour, Olive Glen Orchards’ new Australian-designed olive harvester began making its way through hundreds of acres of trees last week, as harvesting of olives for olive oil started in the Sacramento Valley.

Patricia Darragh, executive director of the California Olive Oil Council, said the harvest started about a week ago, with harvest in the more northern areas of the state set to begin early next month.

Warmer weather has brought on an earlier harvest this year, said Darragh, with olives doing well in intense heat.

“The harvest appears to be quite bountiful,” Darragh said.

This year’s harvest also will be significantly larger than last year’s, said Darragh, when late rains and winds affected the blooms and resulted in a short crop.

The stronger anticipated crop this year, plus more trees coming into production, is expected to lead to the biggest crop the state’s industry has had. Darragh estimated California’s olive oil production will hit half a million gallons this year, almost double last year’s level.

Statewide, there are 10,000 acres of olives for oil planted in 48 counties, said Darragh, with half that number in actual production.

“There’s going to be really significant growth the next two years,” said Darragh. More trees are producing and still more trees will be planted, she said.

She estimated that 2008 could see 750,000 gallons of olive oil produced in California, which will surpass France’s production.

In 2009, she said, the industry anticipates hitting the one-million-gallon mark.

Market demand is keeping up with the exploding production, with more U.S. consumers discovering the quality of California-produced oils.

“Americans can look to California for having really high standards,” Darragh said.

Those standards are embodied in the California Olive Oil Council’s rigorous annual recertification process, which Darragh said is mandatory for members. The council represents 80 percent of the state’s growers.

Olive Glen, which Darragh said is one of the state’s largest growers of olives for oil, is owned by a partnership that includes the family of Bill Carriere, a fourth generation Glenn County farmer, John Post and Borges, the Spanish olive oil exporter.

Carriere said Borges approached his family 10 years ago about planting olives for oil. The Olive Glen partnership didn’t begin planting trees to produce olive oil until four and a half years ago, which put them slightly ahead of the now booming olive oil curve.

Today, they have 700 acres of olives, said Carriere, including 550 planted in the super high density trellis formations that are conducive to mechanical harvesters. Varieties include Arbequina, Arbosana and Koroneiki, smaller tree varieties that do well in the dense plantings, which have more than 600 trees per acre.

Despite Borges’ interest in the olive oil plantings, Carriere said one of the company’s partners was skeptical that Olive Glen could achieve the quality of Spanish oil.

So, as soon as he had a bottle of oil from the orchard, Carriere shipped it off. When the partner sampled it, Carriere said he quickly changed his mind.

Carriere said Olive Glen planted more than 100 acres of new trees in September, and has 150 more olive oil acres planned.

Olive Glen sells its olives to California Olive Ranch, the nation’s largest olive oil producer and processor based in Oroville, Carriere said.

While there’s been a boom in super high density olive plantings around the state, there are still many growers that follow more traditional growing methods.

One example is Figueroa Farms of Santa Barbara County, owned by Shawn and Antoinette Addison.

The Addisons have been in the olive oil production business since 2002, when they bought a label and introduced several others. In addition, they mill olives for smaller producers with as little as 5 to 10 acres.

Figueroa Farms has 23 acres of its own, but farms a total of 120 acres of olives that go into its retail and bulk oil lines, Shawn Addison explained. That acreage is traditionally farmed, with larger trees and wider spacings, and hand-picked, a process that Addison says takes about a month.

The harvest will be late this year, said Addison, with picking still about two to three weeks out for his acreage.

This year’s crop, he said, “is looking pretty good quantity wise,” following last year’s crop, which was about 16 percent of normal due to weather damage.

Addison said he doesn’t grow the olive varieties found in orchards like Olive Glen. His orchards include Frantoio, Itrana and Leccino trees. Addison said their most popular variety is the Ascolano, a canning olive that makes great oil.

The Central Coast, said Addison, is all small boutique producers known for their quality. He said the region’s growers have dominated the competition at the Los Angeles County Fair’s renowned olive oil competition.

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