Harvest Underway in California Amid Historic Wildfires, Covid Concerns

Producers are predicting smaller yields than last year. The record wildfires appear to have had a minimal effect on the state's olive farmers.
Photo courtesy of Giulio Zavolta
Oct. 8, 2020
Daniel Dawson

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Even as record-level wild­fires con­tinue to rage across the Pacific Coast of the United States, the 2020 olive har­vest is under­way in California and many of the state’s pro­duc­ers are feel­ing cau­tiously opti­mistic.

To date, the wild­fires have burned four mil­lion acres (1.6 mil­lion hectares), the state’s fire agency reports, but have largely spared California’s olive grow­ers.

While we have had fires before, never with the fre­quency that we are see­ing, the extent, and the dura­tion.- Giulio Zavolta , co-founder, Olivaia Olives

None of the pro­duc­ers inter­viewed by Olive Oil Times – includ­ing the two largest in the coun­try – reported any dam­age from fire or smoke taint to their crop this year.

As unprece­dented as the August and September fires in California have been, we are thank­ful to have had very few reports of fire dam­age to orchards, build­ings, mill equip­ment or stor­age facil­i­ties,” Patricia King, the exec­u­tive direc­tor of the California Olive Oil Council (COOC), told Olive Oil Times.

See Also: 2020 Harvest Updates

King added that olives are not as sus­cep­ti­ble to smoke taint as grapes, in part due to the wax­ier and thicker skin of the fruits, so smoke impact­ing the qual­ity of the har­vest is also unlikely.

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The UC Davis Olive Center processed smoke tainted olive fruit in 2017 and found the oil was defect-free,” she said. Similar obser­va­tions have been reported by other grow­ers and pro­duc­ers in California, Australia and Chile in past years although very rarely, a smoky fla­vor was detected in the oil.”

In the 2020/21 crop year, the United States is expected to pro­duce 16,500 tons of olive oil, almost all of which will come from California, accord­ing to Jorge Pena, the CEO of Innoliva in the U.S. and an expert on the North American mar­ket.

The esti­mate, which puts this year’s pro­duc­tion a bit higher than the roughly 16,000 tons that have been pro­duced in each of the past four years, is con­sis­tent with anec­do­tal evi­dence from many of the state’s grow­ers, many of whom said they are expect­ing lower har­vests than last year.

The COOC is still wait­ing to hear from more pro­duc­ers before releas­ing its offi­cial har­vest esti­mate for 2020.

This is a down year, so we do not antic­i­pate the ton­nage we saw last har­vest, but our fruit siz­ing is com­ing along nicely so oil yields may be bet­ter than we orig­i­nally antic­i­pated,” Michael Fox, the CEO of California Olive Ranch, the largest pro­ducer in the U.S., told Olive Oil Times.

He added that none of the company’s own olive groves or sup­pli­ers’ olive groves had been greatly impacted by the wild­fires and smoke.

We also take pre­cau­tion­ary mea­sures as we har­vest our olives,” Fox said. The machines used to extract the olive fruit from the trees have large fans to remove any ash that may remain on the leaves or olive fruit. The olive fruit then passes through an air blower on the har­vester itself, and the fruit is washed as it enters the mill, fur­ther remov­ing any remain­ing ash.”

While the vast major­ity of California’s pro­duc­ers are not overly con­cerned about dam­age caused by smoke to the trees or dru­pes this year, there is some con­cern about the trend of increas­ingly intense fire sea­sons in the state.

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Fires burning in the mountains in north Los Angeles

According to Cal Fire, 2020 has been the worst fire sea­son on record, with more than dou­ble the amount of acres burn­ing this year than did in the pre­vi­ous worst year on record – 2018.

The air has been full of smoke for some time, we have never seen it like this before for the dura­tion that we’ve had,” Giulio Zavolta, the co-founder of Olivaia Olives in Lindsay, California, told Olive Oil Times.

Zavolta grows olives in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, about 155 miles (250 kilo­me­ters) north of Los Angeles. In spite of a num­ber of active wild­fires burn­ing in the moun­tains just to the west of his groves, Zavolta reported that no dam­age has been done. However, he remains wary of the long-term impli­ca­tions of pro­duc­ing olive oil in an increas­ingly fire-prone region.

I have recently been on a panel dis­cus­sion orga­nized by the COOC about the risk of smoked taint,” Zavolta said. I believe the con­sen­sus was that we really don’t know as we don’t have his­tor­i­cal data to rely on.”

While we have had fires before, never with the fre­quency that we are see­ing, the extent, and the dura­tion,” he added. It looks like we are chart­ing onto new ter­ri­tory and as an indus­try we should be com­mu­ni­cat­ing and work­ing together to see how we could min­i­mize any poten­tial risk to the qual­ity of the oil.”

We have farmed on this hill for nearly 50 years and no one har­vest has been iden­ti­cal to a har­vest that came before. This is another chal­lenge to be over­come and we will. It is just that sim­ple and that is my mind­set every­day.- Paul Durant, owner, Durant Olive Mill

While wild­fires have engulfed head­lines in the state, it is another nat­ural dis­as­ter that has taken up pro­duc­ers’ atten­tion more recently, as many of them pre­pare to begin har­vest­ing in the com­ing weeks: COVID-19.

In Templeton, which sits nearly equidis­tant between Los Angeles and San Francisco in the California’s Central Valley, Karen Roach, the owner of Olea Farm, said that her olive har­vest is about to get under­way.

We are work­ing closely with our con­tracted labor com­pany ensur­ing they are tak­ing the cor­rect steps to keep their work­ers safe and pro­tected for the upcom­ing har­vest,” she told Olive Oil Times.

Some of the mea­sures we will be imple­ment­ing are plenty of wash sta­tions and hand san­i­tizer sta­tions, [and] face masks for all work­ers,” she added. “[We are] work­ing the crews in smaller groups and spread­ing the groups out within the orchards to achieve [social dis­tanc­ing].”

Other pro­duc­ers inter­viewed by Olive Oil Times echoed the sen­ti­ments of Roach, empha­siz­ing their plans to socially dis­tance and increase the san­i­tiz­ing regime of milling and har­vest­ing equip­ment.

While the vast major­ity of pro­duc­ers reported hav­ing smaller yields this year than last – as many of their groves enter off-years – there remained a sense of opti­mism that just like the famously resilient and durable olive trees, the region’s olive farm­ers would get through this year’s obsta­cles as well.

This year will present addi­tional and sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenges,” Roach said. Currently we are all being forced to become more cre­ative and spon­ta­neous in our pro­ce­dures and restric­tions but one thing is for sure; it is the abil­ity of mankind to step up to the plate, fig­ure things out, share, help and assist [each other] where needed.”

About 220 miles (355 kilo­me­ters) north of California’s bor­der with Oregon, the state’s largest olive oil pro­ducer – Durant Olive Mill – is also ready­ing for the har­vest.

Oregon has also had one of its worst wild­fire sea­sons on record this sum­mer, but Paul Durant told Olive Oil Times that his groves in the north­west of the state have been unaf­fected.

As Durant pre­pares to dole out NK95 masks and per­sonal pro­tec­tive equip­ment to the olive pick­ers, who are just about to head into the groves and begin the har­vest, he muses that 2020 has been a bit like grow­ing olives at this northerly lat­i­tude: full of chal­lenges to over­come.

Actually, I feel pretty good,” Durant said. We have farmed on this hill for nearly 50 years and no one har­vest has been iden­ti­cal to a har­vest that came before. This is another chal­lenge to be over­come and we will. It is just that sim­ple and that is my mind­set every­day.”


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