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.

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.

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.”

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.”


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