Fairs, Competitions

'Sabor Oliva' Joins Uruguayan Producers and Public

Fewer producers attended this year's edition, but spirits were high among attendees. After a disastrous 2018 harvest, producers say they are hoping to set a record in the next campaign.

Nov. 13, 2018
By Daniel Dawson

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At a sleek hotel, flanked with imported palm trees and sit­u­ated a couple hun­dred yards away from the Rio de la Plata, about 600 guests gath­ered over the course of a week­day evening to sample and cel­e­brate Uruguayan extra virgin olive oil.

Quality is the only way we can com­pete with larger pro­duc­ers, such as Argentina, but we cannot com­pete in volume.- Paula Ferrera, Asolur

Uruguay’s olive oil sector has just entered its fif­teenth har­vest season and there was a sense of opti­mism among the pro­duc­ers at the fourth edi­tion of Sabor Oliva, which is orga­nized by the Uruguayan Olive Association (ASOLUR) and Sin Pretensiones, a local restau­rant.

Six of the eight major pro­duc­ers in atten­dance told Olive Oil Times that they were con­fi­dent about having a record har­vest next autumn (which is in April and May in the Southern Hemisphere).

“Yes, I am opti­mistic,” Martín Robaina Antía, the com­mer­cial man­ager at Lote8, told Olive Oil Times. “The qual­ity is high and pro­duc­tion should also be up. I think 2019 will be a very good year.”

Lote8 is one of the larger pro­duc­ers in Uruguay. The com­pany har­vests five dif­fer­ent vari­eties of olives from 40,000 trees. Robaina Antía boasts about the suc­cess of his brand as con­sumers come up and sample var­i­ous oils that are on dis­play.

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Lote8’s Picholine took home a Gold award at the 2017 NYIOOC World Olive Oil Competition. They have also won awards in Argentina, California and Italy. In the 2018 NYIOOC, the only Uruguayan winner was O’33 José Ignacio.

However, even as pro­duc­ers and con­sumers cel­e­brated the anniver­sary with typ­i­cal Uruguayan foods and local wines, the event seemed to par­tially be paper­ing over the cracks of some of the sector’s imme­di­ate prob­lems.

Only eight of ASOLUR’s 30 com­mer­cial pro­duc­ers were in atten­dance this year. Back in 2016, the event drew about 20 pro­duc­ers. Part of this absence could be explained by the dev­as­tat­ingly low har­vest that Uruguay expe­ri­enced this year.

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“This year, it was a very poor har­vest. All around Uruguay, most of the plan­ta­tions had the worst har­vest in years,” Ernesto Singer, an olive oil pro­ducer at Tupercí, told Olive Oil Times.

An extremely hot winter in 2017 meant that many trees could not go dor­mant for the nec­es­sary time to pro­duce fruit. This, cou­pled with a late cold spell, too much rain during the spring and hail, meant just about every pro­ducer in the coun­try had a dis­ap­point­ing year.

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Each of the six pro­duc­ers inter­viewed by Olive Oil Times at the event said they had expe­ri­enced losses of any­where between 50 and 70 per­cent of their yields.

Most of the pro­duc­ers said they either pro­duced just enough to get by or blended this year’s oil yield with last year’s.

“I was able to pro­duce some oil this year and I still had some oil from 2017, which was a great year for us. We had some extra­or­di­nary oils,” Singer said. “Some of them we kept in the best pos­si­ble con­di­tions and made blends with the cur­rent oil. That’s how we plan to get through this year.”

The dif­fer­ences between the pro­duc­ers who were in atten­dance and those who were not are quite large, accord­ing to Sergio Gómez, a pro­duc­tion advi­sor at Olivonoble Services. Gómez has helped har­vest olives and pro­duce olive oil on five dif­fer­ent con­ti­nents and told Olive Oil Times that many newer pro­duc­ers were unpre­pared for the finan­cial burden that start­ing an olive grove takes in Uruguay.

“Some pro­duc­ers don’t under­stand the scope of the invest­ment,” he said. “Years one to five require major invest­ments with little payoff. After the eighth year, you start to make a profit.”

The five largest pro­duc­ers in Uruguay cur­rently account for 70 per­cent of the country’s planted olive trees. The remain­ing com­mer­cial pro­duc­ers make up the remain­ing 30 per­cent.

“That is the real­ity of the sector,” Jorge Pereira, a pro­fes­sor of genet­ics at the University of the Republic’s Agronomy School, olive oil som­me­lier and con­sul­tant, told Olive Oil Times. “Uruguay is in a very dif­fi­cult moment.”

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“The eco­nomic moment for agri­cul­ture com­pli­cates olivi­cul­ture,” Pereira added. “Right now, prof­its and har­vests are low.”

The cost of fuel and elec­tric­ity, an increase in taxes along with a bloated national budget and bureau­cracy have all made farm­ing less prof­itable than it was just a few years ago. In January, mass protests against the gov­ern­ment erupted across the coun­try­side demand­ing that some­thing be done. Uruguay’s Minister of Agriculture resigned in the after­math.

In spite of this eco­nomic uncer­tainty, Gómez, who helps pro­duc­ers with every step of the olive oil pro­duc­tion process from pick­ing the cor­rect loca­tion to prun­ing the trees and milling the oil, sees a lot of poten­tial in Uruguay to expand pro­duc­tion and increase qual­ity.

“Consumption in Uruguay is grow­ing,” he said. “When I arrived in 2002, it was 250 grams per capita and now it is 320 grams per capita.”

“Uruguay has poten­tial,” he added. “When every­one is on the same page with man­age­ment the only thing that will be out of their hands is the weather.”

The small South American coun­try, which has a pop­u­la­tion of just under four mil­lion, already has almost 25,000 acres of olive trees planted. Next year’s pro­duc­tion is esti­mated to be about 1,860 tons, up from this year’s dismal 558 tons.

Some pro­duc­ers are plan­ning on expand­ing their groves, but just about all real­ize that their end game will be increas­ing qual­ity.

“We have a small quan­tity of pro­duc­tion, but very high qual­ity,” Paula Ferrera, a rep­re­sen­ta­tive from ASOLUR, told Olive Oil Times. “Quality is the only way we can com­pete with larger pro­duc­ers, such as Argentina, but we cannot com­pete in volume.”

This sen­ti­ment was echoed var­i­ous times through­out the evening. Speaking with con­sumers and to each other about the prospects of the Uruguayan olive oil sector seemed to alle­vi­ate some of the feel­ings of appre­hen­sion regard­ing the weather and this year’s poor har­vest.

Jorge Serrano has been pro­duc­ing olive oil in Uruguay for eight years. This year, his har­vest was 70 per­cent lower than it was last year, but he man­aged to win a gold award for what little extra virgin olive oil he had at a com­pe­ti­tion in Chile.

He smiled and summed up the night this way: “You have to have opti­mism in this busi­ness if you want to keep going. If every­thing goes well the olive oil comes out well.”