California Table Olive Harvest Exceeds Expectations Despite Pandemic, Wildfires

The table olive harvest in the Golden State was between 9,000 and 15,000 tons larger than initially expected. The transition to high density groves has increased efficiency and quality, one of the state's main producers said.
Jan. 4, 2021
Imari Scarbrough

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2020 was a chal­leng­ing year for agri­cul­tural pro­duc­ers around the world. Olive grow­ers in California not only had to con­tend with the var­i­ous chal­lenges asso­ci­ated with the Covid-19 pan­demic, but they also con­fronted record-set­ting wild­fires.

In spite of this, California’s table olive pro­duc­ers are expect­ing a much bet­ter har­vest than pre­vi­ously thought, which has coin­cided with a reported increase in sales.

In 2020, we have seen gro­cery sales up an aver­age of nearly 20 per­cent and even higher for olives.- Dennis Burreson, vice pres­i­dent, Musco Family Olive Company

Dennis Burreson, the vice pres­i­dent of field oper­a­tions and indus­try affairs at Musco Family Olive Company, said his com­pany had to make sev­eral changes to cope with both sets of chal­lenges.

This year’s crop was more than 35,000 tons, accord­ing to John Segale, Burreson’s pub­lic rela­tions rep­re­sen­ta­tive. The num­ber exceeds the 24,000 tons expected by the California Olive Committee and the 30,000 tons antic­i­pated by the United States Department of Agriculture, accord­ing to Burreson. Musco accounts for about 19,500 of that 35,000 tons.

See Also: 2020 Harvest Updates

In 2020, we have seen gro­cery sales up an aver­age of nearly 20 per­cent and even higher for olives,” Burreson told Olive Oil Times. Grocery ana­lysts attribute this to the fact that con­sumers recon­nected with, or dis­cov­ered, a love for cook­ing dur­ing the early months of the pan­demic.”

Musco has worked to meet the increased demand while also keep­ing up-to-date with enhanced safety mea­sures intro­duced as a result of the pan­demic.

Musco Family Olive Company owns its own pro­cess­ing plant in Tracy, about 50 kilo­me­ters east of the San Francisco Bay, and con­tracts with olive grow­ers through­out the state. Burreson said his com­pany has an aggres­sive” approach to fight­ing Covid-19.

We have con­tin­u­ously evolved our pro­to­cols to address chang­ing con­di­tions and we have repeat­edly gone above and beyond cur­rent gov­ern­ment and indus­try rec­om­men­da­tions,” he said.

To date, our com­mit­ment and these efforts have proven to be suc­cess­ful in reduc­ing the risk of expo­sure in the work­place,” Burreson added. We have never had to shut down the oper­a­tions dur­ing the pan­demic which has enabled us to keep up with the increased demand of California-grown olives.”

The com­pa­ny’s new rou­tine looks sim­i­lar to that of many other busi­nesses: increased san­i­ti­za­tion, hand­wash­ing, tem­per­a­ture checks and wear­ing masks in the work­place.

Any infected indi­vid­ual is required to remain iso­lated until their doc­tor has deter­mined they are virus-free and can return to work,” Burreson said. As a safety pre­cau­tion, the com­pany noti­fies employ­ees who had close con­tact with the indi­vid­u­als and sends them home to self-quar­an­tine. Per com­pany pol­icy, those employ­ees may return to work once they have been cleared by pub­lic health offi­cials.”

Despite ini­tial wor­ries about sup­plies, Burreson said that his com­pany was able to get what they needed when the time came to har­vest the crops. He added that the pan­demic affected the com­pany more than the wild­fires.

Make no mis­take; 2020 is an unfor­get­table year for so many rea­sons,” Burreson said. However, the fires pro­duced poor air qual­ity but resulted in no dam­age to the olives.”

Todd Sanders, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Olive Growers Council of California, said that the pan­demic did cause chal­lenges for some pro­duc­ers, in terms of procur­ing enough N‑95 masks when air qual­ity declined due to the wild­fires. Most were able to get what they needed, he said.

I don’t think any­body, even the gov­er­nor’s office, could have antic­i­pated a pan­demic and wild­fires would be going on at the same time,” Sanders said.

He also con­firmed the sud­den increase in con­sumer demand for olives this year.

California can­ners were aggres­sive about get­ting them in front of retail­ers and cus­tomers,” said Sanders, who also acknowl­edged more of an inter­est in buy­ing locally-grown pro­duce.

He said that while the pan­demic was ini­tially a shock in March, grow­ers have adapted and begun to expect changes. Sanders added that those work­ing in agri­cul­tural fields are some of the most adap­tive and cre­ative indus­tries in the world.”

He issued a reminder that behind the pro­duce on store shelves are real peo­ple work­ing in a tough envi­ron­ment.

It has been hard,” Sanders said. These are farm­ers and grow­ers and they have chil­dren, and they have kids at home and not at school.”

See Also: California Farmer Learns to Adapt to Constant Change

They have to get the crop off and have to work with work­ers who have kids at home, too. It’s hard and dif­fi­cult to nav­i­gate,” he added. And there’s the stress of it, too. California is tak­ing an aggres­sive stance on Covid-19, which is pos­i­tive, but it’s been hard to adapt to.”

Despite a gen­er­ally dif­fi­cult 2020, Burreson remains opti­mistic for the future of his com­pany. He said that Musco plans to not only sur­vive but thrive.

The key is effi­ciency,” Burreson said. The table olive industry’s tran­si­tion to high den­sity, mechan­i­cally-har­vested and pruned orchards is inevitable given the ear­lier suc­cess in California’s almonds, wal­nut, prune, pis­ta­chio, olives for olive oil and other tree crops.”

The mod­ern acreage con­fig­u­ra­tion for table olives is like those orchard sys­tems, with increased tree count, effi­cient irri­ga­tion meth­ods, mechan­i­cally adapted spac­ings and tree struc­ture,” he added.

According to Burreson, mod­ern olive groves are planted with about 250 trees per acre (100 trees per hectare) com­pared with the 60 to 80 trees per acre (24 to 32 trees per hectare) that are typ­i­cal of tra­di­tional groves.

The yield is essen­tially dou­bled per acre which pro­vides improved grower returns and excel­lent effi­cien­cies while greatly reduc­ing har­vest­ing costs,” Burreson said. With the increased yields of mod­ern acreage, this new acreage will not only pro­duce the high­est qual­ity olives in the world but also the most eco­nom­i­cal olives for U.S. con­sumers.”


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