21 Aug

Madera, CA: Olive price is up, but production mediocre

By Ramona Frances,

Unlike other commodities in Madera County, the fruit from olive-bearing orchards will not lead to a “bumper” crop this year. The price may be good, but this year’s yields aren’t as impressive.

“Some of the trees are looking good (this year), others don’t have anything on them at all,” said grower Jim Erickson said Friday. “It’s sporadic at best.”

Referring to last year’s disastrous crop, he said, “but anything is better than that.” Erickson see the winter’s freezing weather as the most likely cause of a light crop.

“The cold temperature we had may have damaged some trees, but other trees look good. And there was heat during bloom. Trees could also be impacted by stress of low water moisture (in the soil) during bloom.”

Kevin Olsen, manager of S & J Ranches in Madera, seems to agree with Erickson’s assessment. He said Friday that the olives are not as heavy as he would like to see on trees but quality and size of the olives are up.

Olsen manages 920 acres of Manzanillo, Sevillano and an older variety called Ascallano. The first two types are used for the fresh-canned market. He credits the spring freeze of 2006 along with the winter freeze for the low fruit count.

Since growers are paid by the ton, heavier loads of olives on the trees naturally produce a greater profit. Growers with good tonnage and fruit size could see as prices as high as $1,150 a ton for Manzanillo olives and $925 a ton for Sevillano olives. Prices for smaller sizes range from $650 to $350 a ton for Manzanillos and $350 to $300 a ton for Sevillanos. Undersized fruit goes for $10 a ton.

Erickson takes care 80 acres of aged, gnarly trees with deeply grooved trunks that have been subjected to decades of seasonal changes. According to Erikson, 30 acres of the 80 he cares for belonged to his grandfather and the trees were a good size in 1920 when his grandfather arrived here. The Madera trees produce the popular Manzanillo and some Sevillano olives used for canning.

“They are close to 100 years old. A lot of the old orchards were planted at the turn of the century,” he said.

Other venerable orchards have not been so lucky. Over time, Madera olive orchards have increasingly been abandoned, pulled or been otherwise nonproductive. Businessman Tim Weaver, for example, hasn’t been focused on farming but has instead been selling mature olive trees out of an old orchard on Road 28, near State Route 99.

In 2003, an average of 6.14 tons of olives per acre were harvested in Madera County, in 2004 the average was 3.29 tons per acre and in 2005 the average was back up to 6.74 tons per acre. Numbers for more recent years is not readily available.

The state’s olive forecast is 110,000 tons, which is up 368 percent from last year’s crop of 23,500 tons. Bearing acreage is estimated at 31,000 for a yield of 3.55 tons per acre compared with last year’s yield of 0.76 tons. Of the total production, an estimated 96,000 tons will be used for canning and the remaining 14,000 tons are expected to be harvested for oil.

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