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Vossen: California Olive Oil Production Will Set New Record

Nov. 1, 2010
Lori Zanteson

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Olive oil expert Paul Vossen says this year’s California olive har­vest will pro­duce approx­i­mately 4.5 mil­lion liters of olive oil for the state. The increase is due, in part, to almost 10,000 trees planted in the spring of 2008, many of which are com­ing into pro­duc­tion right now.

Vossen, an expert in olive oil pro­cess­ing and sen­sory analy­sis, is the panel leader of the UC Cooperative Extension Olive Oil Research Taste Panel and has been a mem­ber of the aca­d­e­mic fac­ulty of the University of California as a Cooperative Extension Farm Advisor since 1980. He has stud­ied olive oil pro­duc­tion sys­tems in Spain, Italy, France, Portugal, Greece, Australia and
Argentina, and is cur­rently in Spain on a trip that will also take him to Lebanon and Italy.

California began super-high-den­sity plant­ing of olive trees in 1999. Traditionally, olive orchards have been planted at a den­sity of about 100 trees per acre and har­vested by hand. Super-high-den­sity olives groves have plant­i­ngs of at least 500 trees per acre and are machine- har­vested. The dif­fer­ence in meth­ods amounts to lower har­vest­ing costs and a faster orchard-to-mill rate which means fresher oil at the peak of fla­vor.

Density rates in California have grown as high as 908 trees per acre, accord­ing to a 2009 sur­vey (PDF) from the UC Davis Olive Center. According to the sur­vey, 12,127 acres of super-high-den­sity trees were planted in California as of the end of 2008, with almost 80% of the acreage planted between 2005 and 2008. This has increased to about 17,000 acres after 4,500 acres were planted last year. Glenn and San Joaquin coun­ties have the most planted acreage, fol­lowed by Butte County. The most com­mon olive vari­ety, amount­ing to 78% of the state’s super-high-den­sity acreage, is the Arbequina, an olive native to Spain.

While olive crops world­wide are expected to pro­duce a plen­ti­ful olive oil sup­ply, the slug­gish econ­omy has dragged on the global demand for this pre­mium oil. Still, the rise of California olive oil pro­duc­tion is some­thing to mar­vel.

Dan Flynn, direc­tor of the UC Davis Olive Center, says peo­ple are con­sum­ing more olive oil each year and the increased pro­duc­tion means there’s a lot of high qual­ity California oil this year com­pared to last year,” mean­ing you’ll be able to find California oil more read­ily around the coun­try.” A decade of mod­ern plant­ing has the Golden State’s pro­duc­tion grow­ing at such a rate that its olive oils are begin­ning to make an impres­sion, even among those of the world’s top pro­duc­ers. So much so, says Flynn, that some of the higher vol­ume [California] pro­duc­ers are com­pet­ing with some of the higher importers.” Flynn believes California could rank among the world’s top ten olive oil pro­duc­ers within the decade.

Spirits are very pos­i­tive for bou­tique grower and pro­ducer, Laurie Schuler-Flynn, of Hillstone Olive Oil who says, I have no doubt that this year will be the largest for California.” Now close to har­vest, our crop appears to be very heavy along with fel­low olive grow­ers that I have spo­ken with,” says Schuler-Flynn whose opti­mism is unam­bigu­ous. Not only is she hope­ful that this year’s crop will make U.S. con­sumers take notice of California’s stel­lar extra vir­gin olive oils,” Schuler-Flynn won­ders, with the upward trend of olive oil con­sump­tion, will there be enough, even in a year such as this?”

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