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 Also: 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. 

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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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