15 Oct

Extra-Virgin Maggoty Oil in California

By Alastair Bland,

At Bernardo Winery, one of the oldest olive oil producers in California, oil flow has come to a standstill. While the Rancho Bernardo company has historically produced 300 to 400 gallons of olive oil per year from its 1200 trees, the olive fruit fly, an invasive pest that’s native to Mediterranean Europe and north Africa, has already destroyed this fall’s crop, says company director Rossi Rizzo.

The female insect does not kill the tree but bores a hole in the developing olive, where she lays a handful of eggs. She may then go on to lay several hundred more in successive olives. Throughout Southern California the insect’s maggots have wrought havoc on the olive oil industry.

Gary Bender, farm adviser with the University of California, Davis extension office in San Marcos, worked with Bernardo Winery near the turn of the millennium, just a year after the fruit fly’s New World arrival, in an attempt to control the insect.

“We did a trial run with some pesticide applicants. We treated every tree every other week, and we achieved some control, but not enough for commercial use. We reduced the maggots from three or four per olive to about one. In the end, they just threw out the entire crop.”

While still a baby in the global olive oil market, California has surged as an oil producer in the past ten years. The state’s growers churned out half a million gallons in the fall and winter of 2007. This season, 750,000 gallons will go to bottle.

Five years from now, the experts say production will hit 5 million gallons, and by 2020, 20 million gallons. Americans currently consume 70 million gallons of olive oil each year, over 99 percent of which is imported.

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