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2014 has been a year to for­get for most olive grow­ers in Umbria.

This part of cen­tral Italy is famous for its qual­ity oils from olives grown on stony hill­sides. The com­bi­na­tion of poor soils and high alti­tude mean the oils are packed with fla­vor. Winters are severe and sum­mers hot — a com­bi­na­tion that does not favor the olive fly (Dacus oleae) in most sea­sons.

A fail­ure to pro­vide a timely warn­ing and advice on suit­able con­trol mea­sures- Brian Chatterton

2014 has been an excep­tion and the olive fly has caused havoc in Umbria. Many grow­ers have not picked their olives and oth­ers have con­ducted an early sal­vage pick­ing before the olives drop on the ground but these olives have pro­duced as lit­tle as half of their usual oil per­cent­ages.

As many as half the fran­toi (olive crush­ing plants) in Umbria have not opened at all. The oth­ers are open for a few hours a day instead of the fran­tic 24/​7 oper­a­tion that is nor­mal dur­ing har­vest. I have never seen our local fran­toio so deserted in my 24 years of olive grow­ing in Umbria. Those fran­toi lucky enough to have good qual­ity oil have increased their prices “at the mill door” by 75 per­cent.

One fran­toio owner I spoke to expressed fury at the fail­ure of the regional agri­cul­tural advi­sory ser­vice and that of the olive grow­ers’ asso­ci­a­tion to pro­vide a timely warn­ing and advice on suit­able con­trol mea­sures. They seem to have been caught by sur­prise as much as the grow­ers.
See more: Complete Coverage of the 2014 Harvest
Other parts of Italy where severe olive fly infes­ta­tions are com­mon have devel­oped bet­ter mon­i­tor­ing and con­trol pro­ce­dures. Integrated pest con­trol can be effec­tive. Fly num­bers are mon­i­tored using a few pheromone baited traps. If fly num­bers reach infes­ta­tion lev­els cheaper ammo­nia baited traps are used on a large scale to con­trol the fly pop­u­la­tion.

The flies lay their eggs on the olives. The lar­vae hatch in the olive and con­sume a large part of the fruit. Just as seri­ous as the loss of oil is the effect on fla­vor. The breath­ing hole of the lar­vae allows fun­gus spores to enter, grow in the fruit and impart a moldy taste to the oil. Black mold has been com­mon among olive groves infested with fly and this has meant the aban­don­ment of affected fruit.

While the weather con­di­tions have favored the devel­op­ment of the olive fly, there has also been an unusual inci­dence of hail in spring and sum­mer which dec­i­mated some crops.

Growers are now con­sid­er­ing what they should do next year. Should they wait for weather con­di­tions to return to nor­mal and reduce the the fly pop­u­la­tion or should they take active steps to pre­vent another dis­as­trous year?

The ques­tion of chem­i­cal sprays has become one that olive grow­ers will have to con­front. Only a minor­ity of grow­ers have applied for for­mal organic sta­tus but the remain­der are reluc­tant to use large amounts of chem­i­cals at a time when con­sumers are increas­ingly anx­ious about health risks from sprays.

There are meth­ods of trap­ping flies with­out spray­ing but can the advi­sory ser­vices act quickly enough to estab­lish an effec­tive mon­i­tor­ing pro­gram? The knowl­edge of the sys­tem needs to be dis­sem­i­nated among grow­ers as rapidly and effec­tively as pos­si­ble.

Umbria and Tuscany olive grow­ers pro­duce some of the best olive oil in the world and we expect that next year will again result in ample sup­plies and fully employed fran­toio. The eco­nomic con­se­quences of this years fail­ure will be sig­nif­i­cant, and a bumper year will be needed to com­pen­sate for the dis­as­ter.


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