17 Aug

Pressing concern for olive growers

Santa Barbara growers face lean harvest

By Franck Nelson,

Santa Barbara News Press

Olive growers in Santa Barbara County are bracing for what is expected to be their leanest harvest in 25 years.

The culprit is the weather, but not the recent hot spell; the high temperatures that troubled many crops were easily handled by most olive varieties. Instead, the damage came from wet and windy weather earlier this year.

Federal inspectors project a 50,000-ton crop this season, about two-thirds below last year and the lowest yield since 1981. They say olive-growing regions throughout California were heavily affected by wet and windy spring weather that damaged buds.

That was pretty much the case for Theo Stephan, who runs Global Gardens and harvests olives from 2,000 trees growing just outside Los Alamos. She also presses olives for other growers and operates the Global Gardens cooking and tasting store in Los Olivos, where clients can enjoy olive oil and gourmet food.

“Our crop is looking very, very light this year,” she says. “I’d estimate we are about 65 percent down on last year.” Usually she produces around 4,000 200-milliliter bottles of oil; this year, she’s expecting no more than 1,000.

Ms. Stephan says olives bloomed very late around Los Alamos, toward the end of May rather than the usual February, and her 10-year-old trees were then hit by late rain and cold winds. “It’s very disappointing,” she says.

To ensure that her shop has enough olive oil, Ms. Stephan says she’s scrambling to increase imports; she already brings in Greek olive oil and has found a new variety, Areca, that is grown in Argentina.

Steve and Cathy Pipe have planted about 400 Tuscan-variety trees on their Close Pepe Vineyards near Lompoc. So far they have only had two harvests, so winemaker and vineyard manager Wes Hagen says it’s hard to judge the state of this year’s crop.

Last year they harvested about 2.5 tons, enough to make close to 50 gallons of oil. The resulting 725 bottles were offered to preferred customers and sold through the vineyard Web site as an adjunct to the core business of making and selling quality wine.

“That was a pretty decent amount of oil,” reckons Mr. Hagen. Although he is not sure about the volume this season, he says the fruit is looking even better. “We’re expecting some high-quality oil,” he says, adding that a reported poor crop in Europe could also help prices here.

When the harvest rolls around in November, it will not be all doom and gloom among local olive growers. Thanks to the influence of microclimates along the Central Coast, some of them are looking forward to very respectable volumes.

“We had good fruit set, and this year’s crop is not looking bad,” says Craig Makela, who runs the Santa Barbara Olive Co. with his wife, Cindy, and has been growing olives on a 101-acre Gaviota ranch for the past 25 years.

“Last year was OK; we got about 70 tons, and this year will probably be at least the same. I think the crop will be average or above average,” says Mr. Makela, who has 5,500 trees on a coastal strip between El Capitan and Refugio, about a mile from the sea.

He says the property’s microclimate kept the crop from being vulnerable to the rain, frost and wind that seems to have affected a number of growers around the state and whose harvests will certainly be much lower as a result.

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