Growers in Xylella-Ravaged Puglia Assess a Delicate Harvest

Farmers who have followed the phytosanitary protocol are harvesting olives from trees where the infection has been brought under control.

Photo: Donato Minosi Olives
By Paolo DeAndreis
Dec. 5, 2022 16:03 UTC
Photo: Donato Minosi Olives

Growers in the south­ern Italian region of Puglia are expe­ri­enc­ing a good olive har­vest in some of the areas most severely affected by Xylella fas­tidiosa.

Groves full of green and healthy trees are vis­i­ble among the many des­ic­cated olive trees dot­ting the land­scape.

If Xylella fas­tidiosa has infected only 50 to 60 per­cent of the tree, then there is a high chance to save it and bring it back to health and pro­duc­tion.- Paolo Marangi, Salento olive farmer

A few kilo­me­ters away from a Salento, one of the areas most severely affected by the olive tree-killing bac­te­ria, Paolo Marangi and his work­ers have been har­vest­ing olives for more than a month in Taranto.

We are very happy with the har­vest, olive oil qual­ity is very high, and I had not seen our olive trees so full of fruits in a long time,” he told Olive Oil Times.

See Also:Reimagining the Xylella-Devastated Landscape of Southern Puglia

While many pro­duc­ers in the region are expect­ing a poor har­vest com­pared to pre­vi­ous years, those expe­ri­enc­ing higher yields are also set to ben­e­fit from high olive prices.

Marangi and some of his col­leagues told Olive Oil Times that their olive groves are almost fully recov­ered nearly 10 years after Xylella fas­tidiosa started spread­ing in south­ern Italy.

The farm­ers attrib­uted good farm­ing prac­tices and well-estab­lished organic phy­tosan­i­tary mea­sures to the health of their new trees. While this com­bi­na­tion does not kill the bac­te­ria, it allows the olive trees to sur­vive the infec­tion and remain pro­duc­tive.

In the Otranto comune, one of the first areas to be affected by Xylella fas­tidiosa, Donato Minosi’s olive groves are quickly becom­ing an exam­ple for many, as his healthy trees stand out in a land­scape dot­ted by des­ic­cated trees.

Four or five years ago, many of my fel­low olive grow­ers did non under­stand what I was doing, did not share my hopes and did not apply the [con­tain­ment pro­to­cols],” he said.

The dev­as­ta­tion led many to lose hope of restor­ing their trees,” Minosi added. Uncertainties and unclear direc­tives from our local insti­tu­tions did not help.”

Minosi man­ages 1,200 olive trees spread over sev­eral lots in the area. Dozens of hectares of trees laden with olives and green leaves come as a sur­prise to vis­i­tors.

I applied that pro­to­col, and five years later, I can say that the dis­ease symp­toms do not show on my trees any­more, and I even believe that the pathogen is cur­rently retreat­ing,” he said.

Otranto’s once wide­spread olive groves have suf­fered immensely from the spread of Xylella fas­tidiosa. Hundreds of hectares of trees remain bar­ren after con­tract­ing Olive Quick Decline Syndrome, caused by the bac­te­ria.

I sus­pect the treated olive trees look even bet­ter today than before,” Massimo Alibrando, an agron­o­mist and olive farmer near Brindisi, told Olive Oil Times. Reacting to the Xylella out­break forced grow­ers to be more atten­tive to the sub­tle changes in the health of the trees.”


Massimo Alibrando and sons

Before, olive farm­ers used to watch their fruit and not their trees,” he added. Because of Xylella fas­tidiosa and the other pathogens, they are now more closely exam­in­ing their trees.”

Alibrando believes that this increased level of aware­ness must also come with bet­ter coop­er­a­tion between sci­en­tists and farm­ers.


Growers and sci­en­tists must coop­er­ate, as dif­fer­ent sick­nesses often man­i­fest sim­i­lar symp­toms, and we need to iden­tify them cor­rectly to cur­tail them,” he said.

The bac­terium is here to stay,” Alibrando added. The pro­to­col will not erad­i­cate it, but the trees regain their health and become fully pro­duc­tive again.”

He also noted how grow­ers in the Xylella-affected areas must cope with other chal­lenges. For exam­ple, he cited the impact of a higher per­sis­tent humid­ity on the plains of Brindisi, which facil­i­tates fun­gus and par­a­sites.

This year, it feels like we are in Milan [located 890 kilo­me­ters north­west], with fog all morn­ing,” he said. Still, the qual­ity of the olive har­vest is high as we began har­vest­ing early to avoid any dam­age from the olive fruit fly.”

See Also:Lithuanian Firm Seeks Patent for Drug to Prevent Xylella

The suc­cess of some grow­ers in mit­i­gat­ing the impacts of Xylla fas­tidiosa is spread­ing across the region, as casual onlook­ers can eas­ily see the results.

Growers said inter­est is com­ing from other local grow­ers and American, German and French landown­ers who have often set­tled in Puglia in tra­di­tional farms called Masserie, enthralled by the charm of the Apulian land­scape.

That inter­est is good news, say the grow­ers, as action is the best anti­dote to olive grove aban­don­ment. Abandoned olive groves fre­quently become reser­voirs for the bac­te­ria, allow­ing it to spread in a region and poten­tially allow­ing other olive grove pests and pathogens to develop.

Five years ago, we bought an almost com­pletely olive grove, and it is now back to a healthy sta­tus,” Minosi said. I have spent decades with olives. My daugh­ter and I have learned to be atten­tive and not to for­get to do the treat­ments at night to avoid the sun’s heat on the prod­uct.”

The bac­te­ria seem to be retreat­ing, and since peo­ple now see the dif­fer­ence, maybe they will act them­selves,” he added.

In the last three to five years, grow­ers have seen how the con­sis­tent deploy­ment of the treat­ment can save olive trees.

If Xylella fas­tidiosa has infected only 50 to 60 per­cent of the tree, then there is a high chance to save it and bring it back to health and pro­duc­tion,” Marangi said. Resilience to the bac­te­ria comes from the con­stant appli­ca­tion of the treat­ments.”

But it also comes from good farm­ing prac­tices, such as light prun­ing, as you remove suck­ers and dry branches and keep the inside of the plant well-ven­ti­lated,” he added. You also need to plow the groves to avoid any grass in the spring and sum­mer as it pro­vides a habi­tat for insect vec­tors of Xylella fas­tidiosa to breed.”

Alibrando, who also works as a tech­ni­cian for the Cantalupi Cooperative, added that in our area, we are work­ing together with com­pa­nies, experts, young farm­ers and agron­o­mists. They will visit the groves and see the impact of the organic pro­to­col with their own eyes.”

According to the experts who devel­oped the pro­to­col, Xylella fas­tidiosa is becom­ing for olive grow­ers what the grape downy mildew is for wine pro­duc­ers, a very seri­ous infes­ta­tion that can be con­trolled and man­aged.

Xylella fas­tidiosa can­not be elim­i­nated,” Marco Scortichini, the lead researcher for olives and fruit crops at the Italian Council for Agricultural Research and Economics who helped develop the pro­to­col, told Olive Oil Times.

It estab­lishes itself in a lot of dif­fer­ent veg­e­ta­tion, and remov­ing the trees found to be infected is prov­ing not to be suf­fi­cient in avoid­ing its spread,” he added.

That means the Xylella fas­tidiosa bac­terium will con­tinue its march north, slowly envelop­ing new agri­cul­tural areas.

We have a new weapon against it,” Scortichini said. Growers whose fields are at the mar­gins of the affected areas can act pre­ven­tively and avoid sur­ren­der­ing to Xylella. Spotting the bac­te­ria in an area should not mean dev­as­ta­tion any­more.”

In the last decade, Xylella fas­tidiosa has caused severe dam­age to the local econ­omy and land­scape and left many strug­gling to rebuild their iden­tity by restor­ing the land­scape.

Their resilience to Xylella, which is now clearly vis­i­ble, shows col­ors of a pos­si­ble future,” Minosi con­cluded. We have hope.”

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