12 Sep

State’s Olive Crop Drops Drastically

The California orchards that produce nearly all domestic olives were hurt by harsh weather this year, leaving growers with the lowest level of olive production in 25 years.

The hit to the state’s $59 million industry will likely drive up prices and dig into processors’ stockpile of canned olives, said Adin Hester, president of the Olive Growers Council.”We won’t see olives disappearing from shelves, but prices will probably go up.

The inventory that’s remaining has suddenly become more valuable,” he said.

Mid-September marks the beginning of the olive harvest, a time when tree limbs usually droop heavy with fruit. But this year, many farmers are reporting lighter than average crops. Some have orchards so sparse, they will not bother to harvest.”We entered the year expecting about three tons per acre,” said farmer Dan Dreyer, whose family has grown olives for 50 years in Tulare County, the No. 1 olive region in the country.”With the cold snap we thought, ‘OK, it’ll be smaller.’ Then the rains came. Then heat. We kept lowering our estimate until we realized we weren’t going to have anything,” he said.In Northern California, buds that grew during an unusually warm January were damaged by a cold snap the following month. Counties such as Tehama and Glen reported near total losses.In the San Joaquin Valley, storms knocked blossoms off the trees and rain soaked pollen into the ground.Analysts with the U.S. Department of Agriculture project a 50,000-ton crop this year, about 65 percent lower than last year’s 142,000 tons and the smallest harvest since 1981. Last year, the crop harvested by Tulare County growers alone was 56,000 tons.The table olive industry will suffer most because olives used for oil make up only about 10 percent of this year’s expected crop, according to the USDA.The weather problems come at a time when many olive growers are already worried about an industry that has seen a steady decline for years.Foreign competition coupled with California’s high cost for labor and water has crippled the business, Dreyer said.Domestic growers once dominated the food services market, but producers in Spain, Morocco, Argentina and other countries started offering cheaper olives, Hester said.About 40 percent of the olives used in pizza parlors, salad bars and restaurants are supplied by foreign growers, he said.California processors have an inventory that will last about 11 months, so the effects of this year’s disaster will not be felt for at least a year, Hester said.Each year, processors put out the best of the crop immediately after the harvest and save the rest.Dreyer said he will use this harvest year to prune his trees. He has some insurance for his orchard, but many growers don’t, he said.In August, Tulare County agriculture officials asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to designate the county a disaster area, qualifying them for low-interest loans.It’s a way to get some of the $1,000 per acre the average olive farmer spends, Dreyer said.”Until then, there’s nothing to do but hope for a large crop next year,” he said.

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