Table olive growers report a ‘real bad’ crop

By Ching Lee; Ag Alert

Freezing temperatures last winter coupled with impacts from the drought have left many California table olive growers in the San Joaquin Valley with not much of a crop this year.

Although the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported a production forecast of 50,000 tons—down from last year’s crop of 91,000 tons—Adin Hester, president of the Olive Growers Council of California, said he thinks the estimate is “on the high side” based on what growers are reporting in Tulare County, where there’s about 12,000 acres, or 60 percent of the state’s table olives.

“It’s real bad down here,” said Rod Burkett, a grower in Tulare County and chairman of the council. “We don’t have any fruit down here to speak of, between the frost, the extensive heat during bloom and the drought.”

Olive trees are alternate-bearing, and this would have been the “off” year, yielding a lighter crop, Hester noted. But with the added weather issues and the drought, growers had a particularly challenging year, he said.

Hester noted that at a growers meeting held by processer Bell-Carter Foods last week in Visalia, not one grower from the San Joaquin Valley predicted yields of 4 tons per acre. Very few said they had 2 to 3 tons per acre, while half of them said they’re not going to pick at all.

Meanwhile, the state’s oil olive crop appears to have fared better.

Patricia Darragh, executive director of the California Olive Oil Council, said estimates for the oil sector are not available until mid-September, but she expects the state will produce about 3.5 million gallons, similar to last year. She said the crop was going to be lighter this year anyway because of the alternate-bearing factor, but noted that some new trees have also come into production. Current acreage is about 35,000.

“Some of the growers have reported a little bit of an increase in production, but some have reported a decrease in production. It does vary throughout the state,” she said, noting that individual growers in certain areas may have suffered more freeze damage than others.

Unlike the state’s table olive production, which is concentrated in Tulare, Glenn and Tehama counties, oil olive production is “pretty far flung in the state,” Darragh said, “so that’s positive for us.”

Jack Bozzano, an olive oil producer in Stockton, said his crop is probably down by half this year, but he attributes that to the trees’ “off” year and said he did not experience much freeze damage.

Table-olive grower Burkett said the December freeze killed much of the new fruit wood that sets this year’s crop, leaving him with a total of 1 to 2 tons spread throughout his 30 acres. That’s compared to 4-and-a-half tons per acre last year.

“There’s no way that I can harvest,” he said.

Art Hutcheson, who also grows table olives in Tulare County, said in addition to frost damage, high temperatures during bloom hurt production. He described his crop as “light” and said he is debating whether it will be cost effective to harvest, even though his fruit will make good size.

“What we do pick is going to bring good money,” he said. “It’s just not going to be a whole lot of it.”

Growers in Northern California also experienced freeze damage, said Mike Silveria, a grower in Orland and chairman of the California Olive Committee. But their production was much better on the Manzanillo variety, which he described as an average crop, whereas the Sevillano variety appears to be a light crop.

The majority of the north state’s crop is in Glenn and Tehama counties, with about 6,000 acres of Manzanillos and 2,000 acres of Sevillanos, while Tulare County grows predominantly Manzanillos, Hester said.

Silveria said the olive committee’s statewide estimate is 32,500 tons, but he thinks yield will be higher—about 42,000 tons, with the north district’s production coming in at around 25,000 to 27,000 tons and the south district at about 15,000 tons.

Ross Turner, who grows both table and oil olives in Corning, said even though many farmers fallowed ground this year due to drought, there’s still concern about whether workers in the San Joaquin Valley would leave the area to travel north to pick olives, as they may not be able to find housing or may have family obligations that prevent them from leaving.

“Labor is an unknown quantity and we’re all scared to death about the availability of labor,” he said. “So many crops are coming on early this year and there’s going to be a competitive market.”

Turner said while he doesn’t have much volume on his trees, he thinks he has a “salvageable” crop that he hopes to pick. But the drought also increased his production costs this year because he had to pump water, he noted. Another added expense was trying to control the olive fruit fly, infestations of which have escalated, he said.

Silveria said his water district will be shutting off irrigation water around late September, but harvest in the north will probably run from early September into October, so growers will have to pick early before their water is shut off, unless they have access to groundwater.

Hester said a lack of water would shrivel the fruit, and processors would reject it. Water shortages could also impact next year’s crop, as water is needed to grow new fruit wood.

Silveria said olive trees are drought-tolerant and can survive with limited water, but growers still need water to make a good crop.


Water Crisis Reducing Valley Fruit Production

The impact of the worsening drought can be seen in the expected drop in crop production.

Valley fruit production is down on many farms, but the lack of water isn’t the only factor causing the lower expectations.

The grape crop is ready for harvest in many Valley vineyards but there’s not nearly as much of the sweet fruit this year. The U.S. Department of Agriculture expects grape production in California to dip 9 percent.

“We came off two big years in both wine grapes and Thompson seedless, so those vines are taking a little bit of a rest,” said Nat Dibuduo with Allied Grape Growers. “The other factor is obviously the drought. We’ve got growers that lost wells or they’re minimizing their irrigations to stretch out the water they do have.”

Table olives fared even worse with the dry conditions. Production is expected to dip 45 percent statewide but as much as 60 percent in Tulare County. 

“When olive trees go into dormancy they need some good deep soil moisture and they didn’t get it,” said Adin Hester with the Olive Growers Council. “The lack of moisture is something that certainly exacerbated, number one. Number two, we’ve got growers that are just flat out of water.”

Peach production is down 4 percent. We’re seeing peach, olive and grape growers rip out orchards and vineyards to put in more profitable crops like almonds and pistachios.

“I think there’s going to be not only Thompson seedless grapes pulled out after this harvest but also wine grapes throughout the San Joaquin Valley because they’re not making money, and they see their neighbors are making money with any of the various nut crops,” said Dibuduo.

Dibuduo is worried about this year’s outlook. He says winery demand for Valley grapes has taken a big hit because of international competition. Some grapes, he says, might not get sold.

Other crops like pears, apples and rice are also down from a year ago.