In Australia it was drought. In France, there was too much rain. Farmers in the U.S. said excessive heat was a major cause. In Greece, it was the olive fruit fly and in Italy, all of the above.
In a survey this week conducted by Olive Oil Times, 4,832 producers in 30 countries around the world were asked how they fared during the 2018 olive harvest season.
Their answers underscore the cyclical nature of olive farming, weather conditions that seem ever more extreme, and both the vulnerability and resilience of the olive tree.
Almost none of the respondents characterized the 2018 season as ‘average.’ In this year it seems Mother Nature dealt winning hands, and losing ones.
Most producers (61.3 percent) scored their season better than average overall, 38 percent said it was below average.
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In terms of yield, 66 percent said it was average or higher, and the average score across all respondents for olive oil quantity was 5.4 out of 10.
But the results were better when asked how they would rate the quality of their olive oils: 88.7 percent of respondents said the oil they produced was average or better, with 63.8 percent scoring the quality an 8 or higher on a scale of zero to ten and an average across all respondents of 7.4.
When asked about the challenges that affected the harvest, the olive fruit fly was the most commonly cited, with 35.6 percent of respondents blaming the pest for their woes.
Poor weather, such as rain at critical times, not enough cool days or excessive humidity caused trouble for 30 percent of producers.
Excessive heat was cited by 23.1 percent; and, ironically, too much rain (23.1 percent) and drought (21.2 percent) were nearly equal in their effect on respondents.
Xylella fastidiosa, the bacteria outbreak affecting farms in Puglia most severely, was cited by 1.9 percent of respondents.
Deep freezes, including last February’s arctic blast dubbed the “Beast from the East” affected the harvest of 15 percent of the producers.
There was a consensus that the mounting climatic extremes would call for vigilance and even greater sacrifice than the heroic sacrifices olive oil production has always required.
“We have to admit that it was a difficult harvest year regarding both the quantity and the quality,” said a farmer in Greece. “However, through preventive actions in the olive groves and a very careful olive oil extraction process, we managed to get some high-quality olive oil for this harvest year.”
“The year was a drama for us. There were too much rain and high temperatures,” said another Greek producer. “These weather conditions happen one in ten years in our region, and because of that, we produced small quantities of EVOO and green table olives. From our three types of local olive tree varieties, only one managed to produce EVOO with high quality.”
Another said, “Our most challenging harvest, dealing with the weather and fruit fly! But our passion for quality and willingness to sacrifice even further our yield for the overall good of our olive oil and reputation will separate the producers dedicated to quality this year. We hope to be one of them.”
With so much being said this year about the layers of challenges facing farms in Italy, the responses to the survey cautioned against making generalizations in a country marked by its distinct regions, terroirs and microclimates.
While there are farmers in the thick of Puglia’s contaminated zone who see little hope for their cherished trees, and inland farms where groves were destroyed by a Siberian freeze, many farms were spared and managed to come away this season with good results.
“Here in Cortona-Tuscany, we had one of the best harvests and EVOO production ever,” said an Italian farmer.
“To counter adverse factors, we started the harvest earlier and accelerated the process, also through night picking,” another farmer explained.
The responses from Italian producers helped explain the historically low yields this year, even while they would characterize as high quality the little oil they managed to produce.
“We had a very good season,” said one olive oil producer whose response was echoed by many others. “Our choice was less quantity but excellent quality.”
In Spain, where the higher production this year served to prevent a worldwide olive oil shortage, producers were generally more upbeat than their Italian counterparts, but the responses from Spain were nuanced.
“Life is getting very difficult without irrigation in our area (northeast of Spain).”
“Harvest looked promising until late August at which time the olives began to ripen quickly. By the middle of October, nearly 90 percent of the fruit was on the ground and we opted not to harvest at all.”
“We always have problems with olive fruit fly but the absence of rain till November, the very hot summer and the use of Torula yeast traps meant the damage was not bad especially as we started picking in late October, which is very early for Extremadura.”
In Tunisia, a farmer had some advice to offer colleagues in the face of warming temperatures and less rain in the region.
“The key lesson is to ensure during drought years in a changing Mediterranean climate two supplementary irrigations: The first in March during the flowering/fruit setting stage and the second in early July during the olive stone hardening.”
California producers linked their dismal results this season to climate change and the survey respondents were more uniformly downbeat, compared with other regions.
“It has been the worst I have seen in the 12 years,” one said. “I hope we don’t have another like it,” said another.
“No olives at all, some varieties of trees irreparably damaged,” another California farmer lamented.
Skimming the responses from the Olive Oil Times survey elicited the sense among producers that the olive oil landscape is shifting as the effects of a changing climate ripple through the regions synonymous with olive oil production and beyond.
“We are now forced to look at changing temperatures in other microclimates to consider if planting in what were otherwise overlooked areas are now plantable to provide olives for great oil,” said a farmer in California.