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Recovery of Traditional Olive Groves Stimulates French Oliviculture

French olive growers are working on recovering traditional olive groves as a means to strengthen the sector.

Ancient olive grove in Pont du Gard
Apr. 2, 2019
By Rosa Gonzalez-Lamas
Ancient olive grove in Pont du Gard

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France’s Inter­pro­fes­sional Body for Olive Oil (Afi­dol) is focus­ing on the recov­ery and ren­o­va­tion of its tra­di­tional and moun­tain olive groves as a means to make the coun­try’s table olive and olive oil indus­try more prof­itable.

The recu­per­a­tion of olive land­scapes in France has already con­tributed to the preser­va­tion of its nat­ural her­itage and olive cul­ti­va­tion has become one of the very few agri­cul­tural activ­i­ties to grow in recent years.

Tra­di­tional olive groves are areas with low den­sity plan­ta­tions (between 200 to 300 trees per acre), low to medium yields (between 5.5 to 11 tons of olives per acre) and con­tain trees with an aver­age age of more than 25 years.

See more: Olive Tree Cul­ti­va­tion

They usu­ally are not sub­ject to irri­ga­tion and are typ­i­cally allowed tog row more nat­u­rally, often result­ing in irreg­u­lar pro­duc­tion. Tra­di­tional groves located on high slopes must be har­vested man­u­ally, forc­ing grow­ers and pro­duc­ers to focus on the oils’ added-val­ues in order to com­pen­sate for higher pro­duc­tion costs.

Olive cul­ti­va­tion in France con­sis­tently declined through­out the eigh­teenth and nine­teenth cen­turies as a result of severe weather calami­ties, lower profit mar­gins, increased com­pe­ti­tion from the expan­sion of vine­yards and other prob­lems within the sec­tor.

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From 1840 to 1929 the num­ber of olive trees decreased from 26 mil­lion to 13.7 mil­lion. In 1956, frost destroyed mil­lions of olive trees forc­ing many olive grow­ers to aban­don cul­ti­va­tion, which caused many olive mills to close.

After this long decline, olivi­cul­ture in France began to recover after the 1980s, when local olive prod­ucts began to be appre­ci­ated again. The fol­low­ing recov­ery of olive land­scapes has been a piv­otal ele­ment of this resur­gence.

From the late 1980s through 2010, France began to reha­bil­i­tate these aban­doned groves, clean­ing parcels of land, regen­er­at­ing old olive trees and the ter­races where they were planted.

More envi­ron­men­tally friendly prac­tices were intro­duced, enhanc­ing the appre­ci­a­tion of the groves’ her­itage value and grant­ing olive trees a higher vis­i­bil­ity in land­scapes, local agri­cul­ture, and also as orna­ment.

Olive trees pre­served their old den­sity and vari­etal traits in the recov­ered land­scapes, but their height was reduced and shape altered to facil­i­tate cul­ti­va­tion and increase pro­duc­tion.

From 1988 to 2011, the num­ber of olive trees grew from 3.4 to 5.1 mil­lion and the planted olive sur­face from 99,000 acres to 136,000 acres. This made olive cul­ti­va­tion one of the few agri­cul­tural activ­i­ties that has grown in south­ern France, more so in the Langue­doc-Rous­sil­lon region than in the Alpes-Mar­itimes.

Mediter­ranean Land­scapes and Ter­roir (Patermed) was a research pro­gram that sought to pro­mote the qual­ity of vine­yard and olive grove land­scapes within their ter­roirs and helped in their recov­ery and reha­bil­i­ta­tion.

This stim­u­lated a greater engage­ment of old and new grow­ers in the sec­tor. Accord­ing to fig­ures from 2014, there are 35,000 olive grow­ers in France, 32 per­cent of whom are pro­fes­sion­als; among these only a very small por­tion is devoted solely to olivi­cul­ture. The French olive sec­tor is char­ac­ter­ized by small­hold­ings.

Afi­dol is pro­vid­ing olive grow­ers train­ing in cul­ti­va­tion tech­niques, such as prun­ing, har­vest­ing from tra­di­tional olive groves and shap­ing the trees to facil­i­tate their year-round man­age­ment. The entity is also edu­cat­ing grow­ers and pro­duc­ers on how to han­dle a vari­ety of tools that can help accel­er­ate man­ual pick­ing.

The orga­ni­za­tion also pro­motes agri­cul­tural prac­tices that are envi­ron­men­tally sus­tain­able, includ­ing soil man­age­ment and appro­pri­ate uses of fer­til­iz­ers. Twenty-five per­cent of the olive sur­faces that are cul­ti­vated by pro­fes­sional grow­ers are now man­aged bio­log­i­cally.

Tra­di­tional olive land­scapes have an eco­nomic value because of the foods they pro­duce are cur­rently in demand among more envi­ron­men­tally con­scious con­sumers and and they help to pre­serve nat­ural land­scapes.

The recov­ery of aban­doned trees has also helped pre­serve local olive vari­eties, such as the Estou­blon­naise, grant­ing authen­tic­ity and higher value to the oils pro­duced in the region. Aglan­dau and Picholine are other vari­eties found in tra­di­tional olive groves.

The revi­tal­iza­tion of olive grow­ing in France is help­ing to invig­o­rate a sec­tor that gen­er­ates rev­enue through table olives, olive oils, other olive prod­ucts, fes­ti­vals and oleo­tourism.





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