Italian Farmers Take Stock of Current Harvest, Look Ahead to Challenges

As the vegetative restart approaches, olive farmers and producers in Italy are preparing for the challenges of unpredictable climate extremes.

Tuscany, Italy
By Ylenia Granitto
Mar. 20, 2023 16:57 UTC
886
Tuscany, Italy

Most of cen­tral and north­ern Italy increased olive oil pro­duc­tion in the 2022/23 crop year, while the south expe­ri­enced a drop.

Puglia, Sicilia and Calabria, which usu­ally con­tribute a sig­nif­i­cant share of the national out­put, suf­fered from an off-year’ in the olive trees’ nat­ural alter­nate bear­ing cycle and a series of weather-related issues.

The last olive oil crop year was com­plex, and nev­er­the­less, over the past years, we have become aware that chal­leng­ing har­vests are no longer the excep­tion but the rule.- Angelo Bo, agron­o­mist

Since the first phe­no­log­i­cal phases, olive groves across the coun­try have been affected by a lack of rain. Some areas were also hit by late frosts, which hin­dered flow­er­ing and fruit set­ting and led to sev­eral cases of fruit drop, accord­ing to the Institute of Services for the Agricultural and Food Market (Ismea). Then, the pro­longed drought and very high tem­per­a­tures hin­dered veg­e­ta­tive devel­op­ment.

As the olive trees’ veg­e­ta­tive restart approaches in the Northern Hemisphere, Italian pro­duc­ers are tak­ing stock of the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion and look­ing at the chal­lenges ahead.

See Also:2022 Harvest Updates

Last sum­mer will be remem­bered as one of the hottest,” Tuscan pro­ducer Matteo Frescobaldi told Olive Oil Times.

We had many days full of sun­shine, and our plants partly ben­e­fited from this con­di­tion, which led to an excel­lent fruit set­ting in early June,” he added. However, the scarcity of pre­cip­i­ta­tion that lasted through July gave rise to seri­ous con­cern.”

According to LaMMA (the Environmental Monitoring and Modeling Laboratory for Sustainable Development), a coop­er­a­tive effort between Tuscany and the Italian National Research Council, five heat waves were recorded in Florence dur­ing the sum­mer of 2022, the longest of which lasted for 15 days, from July 14 to 28.

On June 27, the syn­op­tic weather sta­tion of Florence Peretola, located in the north of the city, recorded a tem­per­a­ture of 41 °C, the high­est value ever recorded by the sta­tion in June.

Furthermore, the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service said the sum­mer of 2022 was the hottest on record in Europe. However, it was Italy’s sec­ond hottest after the sum­mer of 2003.

The last olive oil crop year was com­plex, and nev­er­the­less, over the past years, we have become aware that chal­leng­ing har­vests are no longer the excep­tion but the rule,” said Angelo Bo, an agron­o­mist.

In Tuscany, until mid-August, heat and drought made us fear the worst for the health of the plants and fruits, but even­tu­ally, thanks to the rain that fell in the sec­ond half of the month, the trees man­aged to recover and reach what we might define as an opti­mal devel­op­ment,” he added.

According to LaMMA, sum­mer pre­cip­i­ta­tion in Tuscany was only slightly below aver­age (with a rain deficit of 19 per­cent). Still, it rained very lit­tle in June and July, which recorded a deficit of 75 and 60 per­cent, respec­tively. Instead, the rain was con­cen­trated in August, which recorded val­ues well above aver­age (80 per­cent).

The rains that arrived in late August were a real god­send,” Frescobaldi said. They allowed the plants to rehy­drate in the cru­cial early phase of the oil accu­mu­la­tion process in the fruits.”

Then, the tem­per­a­tures started to drop in the Florentine hills between September and October, result­ing in a sub­stan­tial tem­per­a­ture dif­fer­ence between day and night.

This fac­tor has favored a good devel­op­ment of the organolep­tic prop­er­ties that char­ac­ter­ize the great oils of cen­tral Tuscany,” said Frescobaldi, who started the har­vest smoothly in early October as usual.

However, this was not so for many grow­ers in the south, who had to plan to stave off the adverse impact of a warm, humid cli­mate.

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Nevertheless, accord­ing to Ismea, many pro­duc­ers man­aged to obtain extra vir­gin olive oil with a higher level of qual­ity than it would be under nor­mal con­di­tions despite these set­backs.

After a pro­longed drought, within three weeks, a hot and humid cli­mate was favored by light and steady rains,” said Donato Conserva, the Apulian pro­ducer behind Mimì.

This cre­ated the ideal envi­ron­ment for the olive fruit fly,” she added. A mas­sive attack of this dipteran threat­ened the results obtained with irri­ga­tion. Despite hav­ing to dis­card about 30 per­cent of fruits, we were still able to obtain a good pro­duc­tion.”

The qual­ity has remained very high also due to some of the mea­sures Conserva took, includ­ing her deci­sion to hire more work­ers.

We have recruited dou­ble the num­ber of work­ers, which has allowed us to speed up the oper­a­tions and pick healthy fruits in time,” Conserva said.

The ongo­ing weather issues have sig­nif­i­cantly impacted how olive grow­ers and millers work through­out the har­vest.

Careful advanced plan­ning for har­vest­ing and milling oper­a­tions has become nec­es­sary to meet the chal­lenges of olive farm­ing, avoid losses and keep qual­ity stan­dards high.

In Puglia, there has been a drop in pro­duc­tion of at least 35 per­cent mainly due to a drought that we have not seen for 70 years,” the Apulian agron­o­mist Cosimo Damiano Guarini said. We know the olive tree is a xero­phytic plant and there­fore needs lit­tle water, but water is required dur­ing cru­cial phases, such as flow­er­ing, fruit set­ting and oil accu­mu­la­tion, to obtain qual­ity.”

The farm­ers who used an irri­ga­tion sys­tem were able to mit­i­gate the effects of the lack of rain and face the high pro­duc­tion costs,” he added. However, those who do not use it or can­not afford the expense inevitably expe­ri­enced a pro­duc­tion decline.”

Damiano Guarini said another new chal­lenge to con­sider is the rapid ripen­ing of fruits trig­gered by the very high tem­per­a­tures in many areas as the har­vest approached. Indeed, anom­alies in the devel­op­ment of fruits were widely reported through­out the coun­try.

In Tuscany, some farm­ers were alarmed by an unex­pected early ripen­ing and asked to open the mill facil­i­ties in advance,” Bo said. However, the devel­op­ment of fruits was very uneven, espe­cially in the inte­rior of the region.”

According to the vari­ety, the fruits showed a reg­u­lar ripen­ing in some areas, while in oth­ers, they were already ripe in mid-October and became over­ripe quickly,” he added. In some other cases, early devel­op­ing vari­eties instead devel­oped the best of their aro­matic pro­files later, at the begin­ning of November.”

For exam­ple, in January, I col­lected sev­eral green olives, then appar­ently unripe but with the pulp in an advanced state of ripeness,” Bo con­tin­ued. This means that we can­not rely solely on the color to under­stand whether the olives are ready to be har­vested. And this fur­ther indi­cates the dif­fi­culty of inter­pret­ing the empir­i­cal val­ues avail­able to us.”

It has become clear that high-qual­ity olive oil pro­duc­ers and farm­ers must be proac­tive, accu­rately sched­ul­ing the work and mak­ing strate­gic deci­sions.

The approach of qual­ity grow­ers now acknowl­edges that pro­duc­tion may be reduced in quan­tity but must main­tain high qual­ity lev­els,” Guarini said. Not only must they cal­cu­late times and costs in advance, but they also have to take pro­duc­tion deci­sions in itinere.”

For exam­ple, if they pro­duce blends, they can choose which vari­eties or what per­cent­age of a vari­ety to use in a prod­uct, opt­ing every year for vari­eties less affected by the increas­ingly fre­quent weather extremes,” he added.

In this sce­nario, ensur­ing qual­ity becomes chal­leng­ing, but the right approach can pro­vide great sat­is­fac­tion.

Despite all these dif­fi­cul­ties, farm­ers who were able to ana­lyze the sit­u­a­tion and worked on pre­ven­tion have been repaid by the healthy olives, which deliv­ered excel­lent extra vir­gin olive oils, often char­ac­ter­ized by very pleas­ant and intense aro­mas,” Guarini said

This is telling us that we should adapt our agro­nomic man­age­ment to the chal­lenges ahead by focus­ing on the phys­i­ol­ogy of the plant and its bal­ance,” he added. We must act quickly and accu­rately to bet­ter cope with an ever-chang­ing sit­u­a­tion.”


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