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

Recent News

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.”

business-north-america-production-olive-oil-times

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.

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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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