Argentina Olive Harvest Begins Amid COVID-19 Lockdown

As the coronavirus spreads through Argentina, olive growers and oil producers are facing complications both during and after the harvest. Small producers are likely to be impacted the most.

Apr. 6, 2020
By Daniel Dawson

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The 2020 olive har­vest­ing sea­son has got­ten under­way in Argentina, in spite of Latin America’s largest olive oil pro­ducer enter­ing the third week of a nation-wide lock­down due to the coro­n­avirus.

While all non-essen­tial work­ers have been ordered to stay in their homes, olive grow­ers have been prepar­ing to head out into the groves to pick the first fruits of the year.

Small pro­duc­ers will have a hard time get­ting har­vesters.- Frankie Gobbee, direc­tor of Argentina Olive Group

Due to the decen­tral­ized nature of Argentina’s olive groves and the sheer size of the coun­try, the har­vest sea­son always comes with logis­ti­cal chal­lenges. However, these have been com­pounded by the COVID-19 pan­demic this year.

Before the quar­an­tine, pro­duc­ers already had dif­fi­culty find­ing work­ers to har­vest olives that would later be trans­formed into oil,” Alejandro Ovando, the direc­tor of IES Consultores, an agribusi­ness con­sul­tancy, told Olive Oil Times. Now added to this is the decreed period of quar­an­tine that will make the process even more dif­fi­cult, although pro­duc­ers should man­age to over­come the low pro­duc­tion level reg­is­tered in 2019.”

According to the International Olive Council (IOC), Argentina pro­duced 20,000 tons of olive oil in 2019. Ovando esti­mates that pro­duc­tion in 2020 will be around 35,000 tons, but warned that this fig­ure is likely to change as the har­vest pro­gresses.

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The process will not be with­out dif­fi­cul­ties for pro­duc­ers,” he said.

However, not all pro­duc­ers will be impacted equally by the coro­n­avirus. Situated in the moun­tain­ous north­west­ern province of La Rioja, which has had four coro­n­avirus cases to date, South America’s largest olive oil pro­duc­tion com­pany has already begun to har­vest its high-den­sity olive groves.

We are already har­vest­ing at full capac­ity,” Frankie Gobbee, the co-founder and direc­tor of the Argentina Olive Group (AOG), told Olive Oil Times. With mechan­i­cal har­vest­ing, it is sim­pler [to fol­low gov­ern­ment social dis­tanc­ing and san­i­tary rec­om­men­da­tions] than with man­ual har­vest­ing. Luckily, we do a lot of mechan­i­cal har­vest­ing.”

Pablo Radice for Olive Oil Times

Many small and tra­di­tional pro­duc­ers, on the other hand, are either unwill­ing or unable to use mechan­i­cal har­vesters. Instead, they will still need to con­tract and orga­nize labor­ers to head into the groves and har­vest their olives.

Some pro­duc­ers located in provinces more affected by the coro­n­avirus, such as Mendoza which has had 113 cases and seven deaths to date, are even more likely to face labor short­ages.

Small pro­duc­ers will have a hard time get­ting har­vesters,” Gobbee said.

In spite of these chal­lenges, he still expects Argentina will have a more pro­duc­tive year in 2020 than it did in 2019, though he is not as opti­mistic as Ovando.

I think the har­vest will be more in the order of 30,000 tons,” he said. Although the FOA (Argentine Olive Federation) esti­mates 20,000 to 25,000 tons.”

Pablo Radice for Olive Oil Times

Along with cre­at­ing new chal­lenges for pro­duc­ers, COVID-19 is also likely to impact olive oil sales in Argentina and abroad.

Producers could see a decline in domes­tic sales and an increase in sales abroad as a con­se­quence of the change in con­sump­tion trends toward essen­tial and lower-value goods,” Ovando said.

Olive oil con­sump­tion has always been quite low in Argentina. According to the IOC, Argentines con­sumed 7,500 tons of olive oil in the 2018/19 crop year. The vast major­ity of the country’s pro­duc­tion is des­tined for export.

However, a global eco­nomic slow­down has led to sig­nif­i­cantly decreased con­sumer spend­ing in Europe and North America, two of the largest mar­kets for Argentine olive oil exports.

This means that pro­duc­ers may have to wait until mas­sive stim­u­lus pack­ages orches­trated by gov­ern­ments across the Northern Hemisphere kick in and infec­tion rates decrease, before exports return to nor­mal.

Regarding exports, we believe that there will be a slower rate of ship­ment of sam­ples and mer­chan­dise,” Gobbee said. But they will develop nor­mally if things are main­tained as they are today.”


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