`Tough Season in California - Olive Oil Times

Tough Season in California

Nov. 17, 2014
Don Curlee

Recent News

The tale of the California olive crop is one of sur­vival, but as this sea­son is show­ing it can also be the pits.

From Corning in the Sacramento Valley to Lindsay in the San Joaquin this year’s table olive crop is a seri­ous dis­ap­point­ment, although pro­duc­tion in the north­ern sec­tion is expected to be closer to nor­mal vol­ume. A short win­ter cold snap, severe heat dur­ing spring bloom, plus more heat and lit­tle water dur­ing the grow­ing sea­son have severely reduced the crop in Tulare County. Prices for the canned prod­uct are sure to rise, but nobody in the indus­try expects them to com­pen­sate for the lack of ton­nage.
See Also:Complete Coverage of the 2014 Harvest
Even tra­di­tional pro­cess­ing sys­tems are part of the equa­tion. Each olive des­tined for can­ning, whether green or black, must be cured. Curing involves a dip in a caus­tic solu­tion to coun­ter­act the fruit’s nat­ural bit­ter­ness, plus soak­ing in brine for an extended period before being sealed in cans or jars.

The dis­mal side of olive pro­cess­ing for the con­sumer mar­ket is that both the caus­tic solu­tion and the brine must be dis­posed of. That has been a chal­lenge for olive can­ners from the out­set of the indus­try, and the cause of some bit­ter legal entan­gle­ments and envi­ron­men­tal dis­putes. One proces­sor has installed state-of-the art equip­ment to purify the liq­uids beyond their nat­ural state, and oth­ers are fol­low­ing.

Acreage statewide has declined slightly over the past five years, caus­ing vol­umes of raw prod­uct to dimin­ish. Most of the state’s orchards are aging or already aged, with some hav­ing been uprooted in the past five years, replaced by other tree crops.


Foreign com­pe­ti­tion has been a major fac­tor in the mar­ket­ing of canned olives also. Supplies from Italian, French, Spanish and Moroccan orchards can be imported, mostly by pizza chains, at prices below the American prod­uct. American mar­keters can crit­i­cize the qual­ity, even the taste, of imported olives, but when scat­tered on piz­zas they defy dis­crim­i­na­tion by the teen-age, pizza-eat­ing crowd.

In what was hoped to be a redeem­ing and excit­ing aspect of the state’s olive indus­try, olive oil pro­duc­tion, has expanded markedly in the past eight to 10 years. Thousands of acres of trees have been planted for that pur­pose. Exotic equip­ment, much of it imported, has been installed to extract the oil, and designer labels are appear­ing that chal­lenge wine labels for graphic extrav­a­gance. Taking another page from the wine industry’s mar­ket­ing tech­nique, olive oil pro­duc­ers have opened tast­ing rooms, cal­cu­lated to attract trav­el­ing vis­i­tors, some in loca­tions as pic­turesque as the labels on the designer bot­tles.

Promotional cam­paigns are already oper­at­ing to extol the supe­rior qual­ity, purity and taste of the oil being pro­duced from California olives. New grad­ing stan­dards have been estab­lished, olive oil con­nois­seurs are crop­ping up, and the food and bev­er­age pub­li­ca­tions are fea­tur­ing the quaint­ness of hill­side olive orchards and the taste of their prod­ucts.
See Also:California Olive Ranch Negotiating to Buy Importer Lucini
But even in that enthu­si­as­tic atmos­phere at least one high-vol­ume oil pro­ducer oper­at­ing in an effi­cient crush­ing facil­ity with shiny new equip­ment has folded. He bought olives from estab­lished grow­ers at prices beyond those he could real­ize from the bot­tled prod­uct.

The boom in olive oil pro­duc­tion is partly the result of some recently devel­oped vari­eties, usu­ally planted in trel­lised fash­ion only inches apart, using con­verted wine grape har­vest­ing equip­ment. It strad­dles each row and shakes the fruit from the trees into mov­ing con­vey­ors and then to accom­pa­ny­ing trail­ers for trans­port for crush­ing.

While some dis­ap­point­ment, even dejec­tion, pre­vails in the seg­ment of the California olive indus­try that pro­duces those tasty olives to grace our hol­i­day tables and sum­mer pic­nic out­ings, the oil-pro­duc­ing seg­ment of the indus­try antic­i­pates a grow­ing, even thriv­ing and prof­itable future. These days a per­son in California’s olive indus­try might be at any level, from the pits to the pin­na­cle.


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