02 Sep

Staggering losses expected for county growers

By Aaron Burgin,

The limbs on olive trees along both sides of Spruce Road usually hang like weeping willows this time of the year.

Normally, they are heavy with the black, ovular fruit that pickers will harvest in two weeks.

This year is different. There are no olives.

“I’ve got 14 acres here, and I’m surrounded by 400 acres of olives, and there is nothing on the trees,” said Richard Curts, a retired olive grower. “We’ve got a major disaster on our hands.”

Olive growers in Tulare County and throughout the state have echoed the same concerns: Because of bad weather, the olive crop is expected to be the worst harvest in more than 50 years.

Early projections by the California Agriculture Statistical Service had this year’s olive yield at 45,000 tons statewide.

Last year’s olive crop in Tulare County – the nation’s largest olive-producing county – was more than 56,000 tons.

Tulare County growers say they expect to yield less than a ton of olives per acre on the county’s 15,000 acres, an estimated $14 million harvest.

Last year’s crop yielded $32 million.

With international competition expected to grow, the sour news comes at a critical time for the olive community, which has been in a state of decline for almost two decades, said Adin Hester, president of the Olive Growers Council.

“We are very concerned,” Hester said. “There are some isolated situations where a grower lucked out and may get a crop, but the county is pretty much a disaster area. “We’ve never seen anything like this.”

Wet weather the cause

Growers here and throughout California produce table olives, the black, glossy variety of the fruit with a brownish center and a nutty taste.

This year’s crop was destroyed by what growers called “confused trees.”

“They started to bloom too early, and then we got hit with rain,” Curts said.

During the warm spring months, a yellow mist emits from the trees, falling on blossoms, signaling the beginning of the pollination season.

By late summer, the self-pollination produces limbs full of black olives, which are harvested in mid-September.

This year, when olive trees began pollination, the county experienced heavy rains from several storms that lingered into May.

Instead of wisping through the breeze and floating onto other trees, the pollen was soaked into the ground.

“Since there wasn’t much pollination, there are fewer olives,” Hester said. “We weren’t alone.”

In northern California counties such as Tehama and Glen counties, the problem involved freezing temperatures after an unusually warm January and February.

Those counties also reported near total losses.

“They started to pollinate because it was really warm, and then wham!” Hester said. “It was freezing and the olives that started to grow were killed.”

A history of decline

This is not the first time in recent years that the olive community has faced adversity.

In it’s heyday, Lindsay’s olives were so popular they were mentioned in an episode of “Seinfeld.”

Dating back to the early 1990s when Lindsay Olive folded, the olive market here has been in decline, Hester said.

Growers depend on competition from processors to drive up prices. As the number of processors declined, the remaining processors were able to control the market.

“We’ve lost a lot of players,” Hester said.

“A lot of plants have closed down, and suddenly there hasn’t been a lot of competition to buy the olives.”

A shortage of harvesters in recent years has also affected crop yields.

Between 2004 and 2005 there was a decrease in acreage, tons and ultimately revenues – $32 million in 2005 compared to $36 million in 2004.

“The picking season stretched clear into November, which is highly unusual,” Hester said.

“By that time, a lot of the crop was overripe because it hung on the trees too long.”

As a result of this, the olive market in California has been in a steep decline – since 2000, growers have had one profitable year, 2001, when the crop generated $65 million.

They have also lost ground in the food services market, which they once dominated.

Forty percent of the market, which consists of restaurants and pizzerias, is controlled by foreign competition.

Tulare County Deputy Agricultural Commissioner Marilyn Kinoshita said that groves have been taken out, and others have been sold as ornamentals.

“Many have been replanted as citrus groves and pomegranates,” Kinoshita said.

“If any growers had an inkling of getting into the citrus, this year may cause them to do so.”

Feeling the effects

For people expecting fresh California-grown table olives on the shelves at grocery stores, Hester said don’t worry – yet.

Each year, processors put out the best of the crop immediately after the harvesting season. The rest of the crop is stored for later use.

Currently, there is an 11-month stockpile of olives, so the effects of this year’s disaster will not be felt for at least a year, Hester said.

“I don’t want consumers to think they will not have olives for Christmas or Thanksgiving,” Hester said. “There will be olives.”

If growers, however, have another sub-par harvest, in 2007, then the worrying begins, Hester said.

“We aren’t the only ones growing olives in the world,” Hester said. “We better have a good year, because if we don’t, we might as well close our doors because there are too many foreign competitors who would love to step right in.”

Spain and Morocco have been the U.S. chief competition in the olive market until this year.

U.S. Custom’s added three more countries to the domestic olive market – Turkey, Egypt and Argentina.

Argentina, which just put 250,000 acres of table olive groves in production last year, is the biggest concern, Hester said.

The main concern is losing the retail market the same way domestic growers lost the food services market, Hester said.

“They [Argentina] grow an olive very similar to us and they are closer than the rest of the competitors,” Hester said. “If we don’t rebound, we’re going to have real problems.”

A state of emergency

Tulare County ag officials said they requested the U.S. Department of Agriculture designate the county a disaster area on behalf of Olive growers.

The USDA approved a similar request for pomelo growers, who saw crop losses similar to olive growers but on a much smaller scale.

The request was made Aug. 24, Kinoshita said.

“We’ve had quite a few disasters this year, starting with pomelo growers, then the heat-related deaths of all the cattle,” Kinoshita said.

“This has been a rough year for some farmers.”

A disaster designation would make it possible for growers to receive economic-relief loans from the USDA.

Hester said a concern for olive growers is that the upcoming federal farm bill does not allocate sufficient funding for emergencies.

“The Senate isn’t the issue, it’s Congress,” Hester said. “They’ve basically said they don’t want to make any more money available for emergencies, and we’re saying, ‘Hey, we have a serious problem down here.’”

Meanwhile, growers said they will focus on next year’s crop.

In Lindsay, endeared as “the heartbeat of the olive community” by growers, they are hoping for a pulse in 2007.

“I know growers aren’t going to give up, but they need help,” Curts said.

“Another year like this, and it will be tough.”

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