Europe

Italy's Olive Oil Competitiveness Hindered by Aging Groves

With higher costs and lower yields than modern olive oil farms, quality alone may not be enough to protect Italy's smaller producers in a fast-changing international market.

Feb. 7, 2020
By Paolo DeAndreis

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Fifty years. That is the min­i­mum age of most Ital­ian olive groves. Sixty-three per­cent of Italy’s olive tree-cul­ti­vated land hosts old olive groves and 42 per­cent have less than 140 trees per hectare (2.5 acres) — not enough tree den­sity and yield to remain com­pet­i­tive in the fast-chang­ing inter­na­tional mar­kets, where tech­nol­ogy and inten­sive farm­ing are reshap­ing the sec­tor.

The rise of Spain as the main olive oil pro­ducer changed the tables for high-qual­ity Ital­ian olive oil brands. But then we are see­ing that prices are pushed to the ground. And that isn’t good for any­one.- Angelo Dal­Cima, a farmer and olive grower in cen­tral Italy

In a super-inten­sive farm, every hectare may hold between 600 and 1,600 trees planted in eas­ily man­age­able straight rows. That means costs from prun­ing to har­vest­ing are reduced, while pro­duc­tiv­ity is dra­mat­i­cally increased. It’s time to change, say some Ital­ian farm­ers and asso­ci­a­tions.

Ren­o­vat­ing, intro­duc­ing new pro­cess­ing tech­nolo­gies and upgrad­ing pro­duc­tion and main­te­nance will not come easy, say the farm­ers of Cia-Agri­coltori Ital­iani, the agri­cul­tural asso­ci­a­tion, given both the cul­tural and his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance of old groves and the tra­di­tional busi­ness orga­ni­za­tion of small fam­ily farm­ing.

See more: The Best Olive Oils from Italy

One of the biggest chal­lenges is to push for the aggre­ga­tion of grow­ers, pro­vid­ing incen­tives for those able to tackle the entire pro­duc­tion chain, from the tree to the olive oil con­sumer,” said Dino Scanavino, the CIA pres­i­dent.

Today only five per­cent of all Ital­ian olive farm­ing land is ded­i­cated to inten­sive farm­ing and just one per­cent con­sists of groves five years of age or younger, the CIA noted.

When the Euro­pean Union in 2014 intro­duced the EAFRD (Euro­pean agri­cul­tural fund for rural devel­op­ment) and funded €100 bil­lion ($109 bil­lion), the idea was to push for a gen­eral ren­o­va­tion of Euro­pean farm­ing and the intro­duc­tion of new tech­nolo­gies while mak­ing the rural world develop the skills and pro­duc­tion means to be a true com­peti­tor on the global mar­ket.

Many grow­ers have fol­lowed the lead, mainly in Spain and Por­tu­gal. Not all pro­duc­ers share the same com­mit­ment, though.

Spain is drag­ging its feet in its own suc­cess,” Angelo Dal­Cima, a farmer and olive grower in cen­tral Italy told Olive Oil Times. The rise of Spain as the main olive oil pro­ducer, with inten­sive and over-inten­sive farm­ing and reduced prun­ing and har­vest­ing costs, changed the tables for high-qual­ity Ital­ian olive oil brands. But then we are see­ing that prices are pushed to the ground. And that isn’t good for any­one.”

Many smaller Ital­ian grow­ers are in areas that are not always fit for inten­sive farm­ing. The rea­sons vary from the geo­graph­i­cal loca­tion on the hills to the his­tor­i­cal and land­scape con­texts. Most olive oil pro­duc­tion in Italy comes from the Puglia region but a big share comes from Tus­cany, a region where olive oil qual­ity and tra­di­tional farm­ing do often come together.

We tend to believe that tra­di­tional olive oil grow­ing means bet­ter olive oil qual­ity,” said Dal­Cima. And higher qual­ity is the answer many Ital­ian grow­ers are keen to offer to the chang­ing mar­kets.

That is why asso­ci­a­tions and agri­cul­tural con­fed­er­a­tions are ask­ing Europe to rede­fine what extra vir­gin olive oil means. They want acid­ity lim­its to be low­ered to 0.4 per­cent — half of the cur­rently man­dated bench­mark of 0.8 per­cent.

It is fair, we should pro­tect high qual­ity,” Dal­Cima said. Change will come to Ital­ian olive groves, but it will take time. A whole cul­ture is chal­lenged and who knows if high qual­ity will be enough to pro­tect it.”



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