` As California Grapples with Water Shortage, Olive Oil Producers See an 'Up Year'

N. America

As California Grapples with Water Shortage, Olive Oil Producers See an 'Up Year'

Jul. 21, 2015
By Wendy Logan

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Back in May, in an eye-open­ing story, The New York Times offered a real­ity check regard­ing the West Coast’s severe water short­age. In Your Con­tri­bu­tion to the Cal­i­for­nia Drought,” reporters Larry Buchanan, Josh Keller, and Haey­oun Park laid down the facts: it takes just over 15 gal­lons of water to pro­duce 16 almonds; more than 15 gal­lons for a mere 2 ounces of rice; a whop­ping 24 gal­lons for a sin­gle bunch of grapes; 9 gal­lons for a small bowl of processed toma­toes; and 1.4 gal­lons for just two olives.

Given the aus­ter­ity mea­sures cur­rently in place, with addi­tional steps toward water con­ser­va­tion sure to fol­low, what will become of California’s olive trees? For 2015, at least, the olive har­vest fore­cast looks sur­pris­ingly upbeat.

Mike Coldani of Coldani Olive Ranch, mak­ers of the award-win­ning Calivir­gin extra vir­gin olive oil, told Reed Fuji of Recordnet.com recently that this year’s crop is show­ing promise. At our ranches, I’m opti­mistic,” he said, echo­ing the sen­ti­ments of indus­try col­leagues like Jeff Colom­bini, direc­tor of grow­ing oper­a­tions for Corto Olive. Colom­bini went a step fur­ther: I would say it’s an above-aver­age crop this year.”

Not so in 2014, when a thin yield cre­ated strong demand, par­tic­u­larly for the oils the fruit bears. Much dis­cus­sion of the drought and its effect on the trees and the future of the left coast’s olive oil indus­try ensued. It turns out, how­ever, that olive trees are quite a sturdy lot.

The UC Davis’ Drought Man­age­ment web­site, ded­i­cated to deter­min­ing the best strate­gies to address irri­ga­tion effi­ciency in a water-short envi­ron­ment, says that although ade­quate water is crit­i­cal to main­tain­ing orchard pro­duc­tiv­ity,” olive plants, par­tic­u­larly those grown for oil, are among the most tol­er­ant and flex­i­ble when it comes to water.

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While table olive pro­duc­ers need to main­tain max­i­mum fruit size and fruit yield, the site explains, the price received for olive oil is not related to fruit size.” Olives for olive oil can be irri­gated less than table olives and still pro­duce good oil.

Olive groves at McEvoy Ranch

The site ref­er­ences a study (Berenguer et al, 2006) that essen­tially indi­cated that water stressed olives appear to cre­ate bet­ter, health­ier, and tastier olive oils with a higher polyphe­nol con­tent and an excep­tional bal­ance of fla­vors. By con­trast, the more heav­ily irri­gated trees low­ered oil extractabil­ity and pro­duced bland oils with sig­nif­i­cantly less fruiti­ness and almost no bit­ter­ness or pun­gency.”

Did the drought play a part in 2014’s defi­ciency? And how does 2015 bring such abun­dance? Olive Oil Times asked Kim­berly Hould­ing, pres­i­dent and CEO of the Amer­i­can Olive Oil Pro­duc­ers Asso­ci­a­tion to weigh in on the appar­ent dichotomy. AOOPA rep­re­sents over 100 pro­duc­ers, all based in Cal­i­for­nia, respon­si­ble for over 90 per­cent of U.S. olive oil pro­duc­tion. The olive tree, by nature, she said, is an alter­nate bear­ing crop, whose fruit yield quite com­monly swings from light to heavy years.

Grow­ers have tried to con­trol and lessen that by way of man­aged orchards — their prun­ing and hedg­ing — to cre­ate more of a con­sis­tent crop with­out the huge swings, but there will still be fluc­tu­a­tions. It’s the nature of the tree,” said Hould­ing. That’s part of the answer. The rest gets chalked up to weather and other fac­tors brought to the grow­ing envi­ron­ment by Mother Nature.

The larger impact for the 2014 grow­ers, Hould­ing said, was a frost that hit the region in Decem­ber of 2013. Olive trees don’t like extended frost peri­ods,” she added. And that hard frost impacted pro­duc­tion for the next year.”

But what about the drought?

Long term, Hould­ing said, I would say the indus­try is look­ing at what impacts the drought may have on the olive oil pro­duced.” In the U.S., olive trees’ tol­er­ance make for a great alter­na­tive crop. It’s about how best we man­age the water that we have. More research is being done as to the quan­tity of water needed and the tim­ing of irri­ga­tion,” among other fac­tors.

You’re going to have a much more con­sis­tent and high-qual­ity crop when water is avail­able in proper quan­ti­ties. But we’re look­ing to other coun­tries, like our friends in Aus­tralia, to deter­mine what they’ve learned in the man­age­ment of their crops. That being said, almost 90 per­cent of the world’s crop goes with­out devel­oped irri­ga­tion of any kind. Olives can be grown in drought con­di­tions. What’s impor­tant now is to under­stand how best to man­age it.”

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