Climate and COVID Worry Farmers Preparing for Harvest

An Olive Oil Times survey reveals a season of growing uncertainties and challenges for olive oil producers.
Heidi Vogsted Drange
Sep. 16, 2020
OOT Staff

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It is an indus­try known for its hard­ships. But even the resilient olive tree and the stal­wart farm­ers used to the ever-chang­ing cir­cum­stances of nature are bend­ing under the stresses of the 2020 har­vest now under­way in the Northern Hemisphere.

Responses to an Olive Oil Times sur­vey this week revealed a sea­son of uncer­tain­ties in the face of nat­ural and mar­ket forces at odds with the illu­sory sim­plic­ity of grow­ing fruit and extract­ing its oil to make a liv­ing.

As the world enters its third sea­son wrestling with a pan­demic that has claimed nearly one mil­lion lives and upended count­less busi­nesses, olive oil’s place as a vital food pro­vides pro­duc­ers some shel­ter from the shift­ing pri­or­i­ties in the new real­ity. 

Still, there are plenty of wor­ries to go around and farm­ers said they are faced with the rip­ple effects of the cri­sis on sev­eral fronts.

Half of the pro­duc­ers sur­veyed said the COVID-19 will have a neg­a­tive impact on this year’s har­vest and 25 per­cent of respon­dents expect a short­age of labor­ers will limit their oper­a­tions.

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We are con­cerned whether we can find work­ers for har­vest­ing and how we can pro­tect the health of those work­ers,” said Mehmet Taki, a farmer in Tunisia. Finding young work­ers has always been a prob­lem, as the new gen­er­a­tion prefers office jobs to farm­ing. We don’t know how we’ll be able to har­vest our olives with our aging work­force in the time of corona.”

Leon Narbey, a pro­ducer in New Zealand whose har­vest occurred ear­lier this year, said, I picked alone and processed alone because of COVID lock­down as no one else could come and help me.”

And many fear the impact of the cri­sis on their liveli­hoods won’t sub­side with the case counts. Seventy-three per­cent of farm­ers sur­veyed said they are some­what con­cerned” to extremely con­cerned” about the long-term effects the coro­n­avirus will have on their busi­nesses.

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Diego Vergara, Spain

I’m con­fi­dent that we are going to come out of this tragedy that we’re in. In 2020 being an olive grower in the Napa Valley I have seen so many chal­lenges this year,” said Jamie Anzalone, a California pro­ducer.

While many farm­ers who increas­ingly rely on agri­tourism, there were some who said they man­aged to cap­i­tal­ize on the world­wide surge in e‑commerce activ­ity. We organic olive oil pro­duc­ers are hav­ing a good year in sales because we were invest­ing always in inter­net mar­ket­ing so COVID brings us many more new clients and peo­ple are learn­ing about olive oil and organic food more than ever,” said a Dalmatian pro­ducer, Bogdan Pensa.

One-third of respon­dents to the sur­vey iden­ti­fied sag­ging mar­ket prices among their top con­cerns, while 11 per­cent blamed the recently imposed tar­iffs on Spanish olive oils for adding insult to injury.

The Covid-19 pan­demic has been dev­as­tat­ing to our busi­ness, but the tar­iffs imposed by the US have caused per­ma­nent dam­age due to lost rev­enue,” said John Cancilla, a Spanish olive oil pro­ducer. One would hope that our lead­ers would use their power more respon­si­bly.”

Uğur Özen, a farmer in Turkey agreed. It seems even sun­flower oil prices are going to catch olive oil prices,” he said. I don’t think farm­ers and pro­duc­ers can stand these low prices too long”

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Louisa Sherman, France

As his­toric wild­fires raged across the American West and the politi­ciza­tion of cli­mate change returns to cen­ter stage, global warm­ing remains a bane of olive oil pro­duc­ers around the world who see its effects through their farm­house win­dows and in their groves. Unsurprisingly, weather and cli­mate topped the list of con­cerns in the OOT sur­vey.

Heavy rains, hail­storms and other extreme weather events have wreaked havoc in Italy, caus­ing severe dam­age to olive trees, grapevines and a num­ber of other crops.

In Greece, Mycenaean-based olive oil pro­ducer and exporter, Ioannis Kampouris said, the May heat­wave affected the flow­er­ing of the olive trees so the vol­ume of the olive oil pro­duced will be on the low side.”

Producers in Jordan warned the Ministry of Agriculture that wildly fluc­tu­at­ing weather con­di­tions have hit crops in the flow­er­ing period, elim­i­nat­ing hopes for a strong har­vest.

Local olive grow­ers said most of their oil for the last sea­son still sits in stor­age facil­i­ties. The weak demand for olive oil in domes­tic and inter­na­tional mar­kets in recent months has severely impacted farm­ers’ rev­enues and oper­a­tions.

Cultivating an irre­press­ible tree nev­er­the­less seems to yield a degree of opti­mism among farm­ers and pro­duc­ers in the midst of mount­ing chal­lenges, and there’s con­sen­sus that prof­itabil­ity remains the elu­sive key.

Supply has out­paced demand and the aver­age con­sumer still has no sense of the value of one of the world’s health­i­est foods.

I’m opti­mistic that we will come out of this but man it is freak­ing tough to stay afloat — I’m doing every­thing I can,” Anzalone said.

This is the first arti­cle in a series on the Olive Oil Times 2020 har­vest sur­vey.

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