California’s Olive Oil Producers Face Uncertain Future as Historic Drought Continues

While some farmers remain optimistic that research and preparation will yield a fruitful future, others worry about the diminishing prospects of surface irrigation.
Camarillo, CA
Aug. 5, 2021
Daniel Dawson

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California is in the midst of its worst period of drought since 2016, and it is unlikely to break any­time soon.

According to data from the United States Drought Monitor, about 47 per­cent of the state is in an excep­tional drought. A fur­ther 95 per­cent is in a severe drought, and the whole state is con­sid­ered to be in a mod­er­ate drought.

I need our six lit­tle ponds to fill up to 100-per­cent capac­ity to prop­erly irri­gate the orchards and land­scape… We’re short about 22 mil­lion gal­lons of water this year.- Samantha Dorsey, pres­i­dent, McEvoy Ranch

Since records began in 1895, California has only expe­ri­enced this level of excep­tional drought on four other occa­sions.

Among the areas hard­est hit by the state’s drought have been the San Joaquin Valley and the Sacramento Valley, both of which boast some of the most fer­tile agri­cul­tural lands in the United States.

See Also:Family Behind Organic Roots Adapts as California Drought Refuses to Break

California’s Public Policy Institute esti­mates that about 216,500 hectares – 10 per­cent – of the San Joaquin Valley’s agri­cul­tural land will fall out of pro­duc­tion in the next two decades due to the drought.

Few crops are likely to be spared. However, olive grow­ers and oil pro­duc­ers may be best posi­tioned to cope with an increas­ingly hot and dry California.

California has been in drought for 50 years,” Javier Fernandez-Salvador, the exec­u­tive direc­tor of the University of California-Davis Olive Center, told Olive Oil Times. There are more years of drought than what they used to con­sider nor­mal. Olive farm­ers, in gen­eral, have been prepar­ing quite well.”

Of course, it is impos­si­ble to gen­er­al­ize,” he added. It all depends on man­age­ment and how every­one is han­dling the dif­fer­ent sea­sons.”

Since start­ing the job two months ago, Fernandez-Salvador has already been to visit some of the state’s super-high-den­sity and ultra-high den­sity groves. He said the pro­duc­ers behind these oper­a­tions have already started to adapt.

They are start­ing to change their approach to the way that they are prun­ing and man­ag­ing, becom­ing more tech­ni­cal,” he said.

Based on his dis­cus­sions with pro­duc­ers so far, Fernandez-Salvador does not think this period of drought will have a major impact on the state’s olive oil pro­duc­tion in 2021.

I have not heard of any issues with pol­li­na­tion or yield reduc­tion this year,” he said. I think the crop is look­ing pretty decent. Some peo­ple are expect­ing to have great crops.”


San Luis Reservoir

According to data from the Olive Oil Commission of California, the state will pro­duce approx­i­mately three mil­lion gal­lons (13.6 mil­lion liters) of olive oil in 2021, a big improve­ment over last year’s yield of 1.9 mil­lion gal­lons (8.6 mil­lion liters), but slightly lower than the 3.6 mil­lion gal­lons (16.4 mil­lion liters) pro­duced in 2019.

However, the drought has not impacted every grower equally. Situated on 220 hectares in Petaluma, just north of San Fransisco, Samantha Dorsey, the pres­i­dent of McEvoy Ranch, expects to see a smaller yield than she pre­vi­ously expected as a result of sev­eral fac­tors.

The grow­ing sea­son is a chal­leng­ing one… and there are a num­ber of fac­tors,” she told Olive Oil Times. There’s the drought, extremely high winds and high tem­per­a­tures that all kind of con­verged around bloom and fruit set. I think fruit set is going to be a bit lower.”

The Sonoma County pro­ducer said high winds had swept through her groves in May and June, just as the trees were blos­som­ing. Combined with the scant rain­fall, the wind blew plenty of blos­soms off the trees and dried out the pollen in other blos­soms, lead­ing to flo­ral des­ic­ca­tion.

We’ve had a great deal of that this spring, so while the ini­tial bloom looked really good, by the time we got to fruit­set, much less fruit had set because of the wind dur­ing bloom,” she said.

See Also:One-Fifth of Italy at Risk of Desertification, Irrigation Experts Warn

Like the over­whelm­ing major­ity of pro­duc­ers that do irri­gate in California, Dorsey said that McEvoy Ranch uses drip irri­ga­tion. This helps pro­duc­ers use the exact amount of water required by the tree dur­ing dif­fer­ent stages of devel­op­ment.

However, even with drip irri­ga­tion, pro­duc­ers who are reliant on sur­face water for irri­ga­tion are strug­gling with the lack of rain­fall over the past spring and autumn and a much lower snow­pack in the Sierra Nevada.

Farmers who are irri­gat­ing with well water are less affected this year,” Dorsey said. They may have long-term sup­ply prob­lems com­ing down the pike as the aquifers are more and more depleted.”

Whereas grow­ers like us are com­pletely depen­dent upon our sur­face water runoff, so our annual water access is vari­able,” she added. But from a long-term per­spec­tive, I’m not depend­ing upon any aquifer stor­age for irri­ga­tion.”

To put this into con­text, Dorsey said that she has six ponds scat­tered around the farm that store water for the irri­ga­tion of her trees and vines.


An irrigation pond on McEvoy Ranch. Photo: Samantha Dorsey

I need our six lit­tle ponds to fill up to 100-per­cent capac­ity to prop­erly irri­gate the orchards and land­scape,” she said. Our max­i­mum this year was about 33 per­cent. We’re short about 22 mil­lion gal­lons (100 mil­lion liters) of water this year.”

Back in Davis, Fernandez-Salvador said that one of the main projects he is work­ing on with the Olive Center is how to improve irri­ga­tion. The cen­ter recently hired a new irri­ga­tion spe­cial­ist to research opti­miza­tion, evap­o­tran­spi­ra­tion and water reduc­tion for olive groves, among other crops.

There is a grant that the uni­ver­sity received to specif­i­cally look at water opti­miza­tion in olives,” Fernandez-Salvador said. This is great. We’re already work­ing to deter­mine what the stan­dards for the new nor­mal, which will be hot­ter weather, drier springs and sum­mers and even hot­ter autumns.”

The advan­tage is that we are work­ing with a crop that is very for­giv­ing,” he con­cluded. Olives can with­stand inclement con­di­tions and I think once we have the data and we can start mak­ing good rec­om­men­da­tions to the grow­ers, we’ll be able to address the drought and low­er­ing water avail­abil­ity bet­ter than other crops.”


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