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

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

Jul. 21, 2015
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.

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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