08 Dec

Croatia’s olive oil producers fight quantity with quality

Croatian olive farmer Sandi Chiavalon has high hopes of taking on the might and quantity of Greece, Italy and Spain with the quality of oil from his groves.

The three European giants may account for more than three-quarters of global olive oil production, but Chiavalon is one of many young Croatian entrepreneurs readying their produce for a niche in the EU market.

“We will only have a future if we produce top quality (olive oil),” says the 25-year-old, who started olive-growing as a hobby with some 30 trees but whose oil now ranks among the world’s top 15, according to industry bible L’Extravergine.

“Our target should be a superior oil that the market is lacking and people are ready to pay for.

“We are too small to fight with quantities,” says Chiavalon while sitting in an ultra-modern oil taste-testing room set up for tourists opposite his house in Vodnjan, a tiny town in the northwestern peninsula of Istria.

Despite a tradition dating back to Roman times, neglect and changes linked to the economy and demographics saw Croatian olive-growing decline after World War II, when its Adriatic coast had some 40 million trees compared with today’s six million.

The sector has seen a revival since its 1991-1995 independence war, when with the decline in tourism many tried to supplement their incomes through traditional means.

It expanded notably during the past eight years with the planting of new trees and revitalisation of old, abandoned olive groves, largely thanks to the rising number of young, educated farmers and state investment.

With its average 5,000 tonnes of olive oil yearly, Croatia holds 0.2 percent of the global market, according to the International Olive Oil Council.

“We hope that we can enter the EU with some 10 million trees,” Josip Kraljickovic, state secretary at the agriculture ministry, told AFP.

Next year Croatia will have to adjust subsidies and register each of its olive trees as part of reforms required of its bid to join the European Union by 2011.

More than 90 percent of olive oil is produced from family farms, the vast majority of which have less than 500 trees each.

“Splintered land and unsolved property issues are the main problem in the sector,” says Kraljickovic, who also warns of the issue of the grey economy.

Some 80 percent of Croatian oil is sold illegally, while the state subsidises all olive-growers.

“Subsidies should boost legal sales and bring the oil on the legal market,” says Ivan Milat, head of an olive-growers group.

Milat is also confident top quality olive oil will find a place in the EU market.

“We cannot fight with big producers in terms of quantity, but only with high quality accompanied by competitive prices.”

Experts stress Croatia’s wine-growing, olive-producing and lucrative tourism industry can complement each other.

This was already recognised in Istria where apart from taking a wine route, tourists can enrich vacations with a gastronomic delight on olive grove tours.

“Our product should… accompany tourism. We have to continue developing olive oil tours, taste-testing rooms,” says olive grower Emanuel Grubic, from Bale near Vodnjan.

Grubic, 30, whose plantation has some 1,500 trees, opened an olive oil refinery in October on the site of one originating in the 1930s. Old machines were restored and serve as a kind of museum where he is planning to offer sampling.

“Istrian oil is already a brand in Europe,” he says confidently.

Vodnjan provides up to 50 percent of production in Istria which currently has around one million trees.

Istria enjoys a reputation for top quality oil, with some 90 percent of it extra virgin selling at between 10 and 20 euros (12 to 24 dollars) for half a litre.

Four olive-growers from the Vodnjan region joined forces to enter the EU market.

In 2005, they formed the Brist-Olive group that has a total of 10,000 trees and produces 3,500 litres of “oils with identity.”

“We are planning to export to France and Italy. Our advantage is that we have world-class quality and, if we manage to place (our product) in the right way, we can find a buyer in Europe,” says its head, Silvano Puhar.

The Istrian model, he says, should be copied throughout Croatia.

“We are a small country and we should be recognised as a brand, a quality product niche.”

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