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Pandemic, Drought Slow Chilean Harvest

Chile's worsening coronavirus outbreak has added to the challenges facing producers who nevertheless remain optimistic about the quality of their harvests.
Agricola Pobeña
Jun. 9, 2020
Daniel Dawson

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Chile’s increas­ingly wors­en­ing COVID-19 out­break has brought much of the coun­try to a stand­still in the past few weeks and left olive oil pro­duc­ers rush­ing to com­plete the 2020 har­vest.

Accord­ing to the country’s health min­istry, there are more than 122,000 cases of the novel coro­n­avirus in Chile with nearly 1,500 deaths. The vast major­ity of cases are in the country’s cap­i­tal, San­ti­ago, but all 16 regions of Chile have been hit by the pan­demic.

Global mar­kets are strug­gling and COVID-19 has made every­thing much more dif­fi­cult. But times are chang­ing very quickly and we need to adapt.- Clau­dio Lovaz­zano, head of mar­ket­ing at Olivos del Sur

While none of the country’s major olive oil pro­duc­ers have had to shut down due to local COVID-19 out­breaks, pro­duc­ers say that imple­ment­ing safety mea­sures to mit­i­gate the spread of the dis­ease have delayed the rate at which they can har­vest.

The per­sis­tent drought fac­ing much of the coun­try and low global olive oil prices have also com­pounded the chal­lenges cur­rently fac­ing pro­duc­ers.

See more: 2020 Har­vest News

In spite of these set­backs, Chilean pro­duc­ers expect to har­vest a lit­tle less than 20,000 tons of olive oil in 2020, very sim­i­lar to 2019, in which the coun­try pro­duced 19,000 tons.

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From what we have pro­jected and con­firmed over the past few days, we will have a smaller quan­tity but bet­ter qual­ity than last year,” José Manuel Reyes, the devel­op­ment man­ager at Agri­cola Pobeña, which pro­duces the Alonso olive oil brand, told Olive Oil Times.

Based in the cen­tral O’Higgins region of Chile, about 70 miles south­west of San­ti­ago, Agri­cola Pobeña pro­duces a vari­ety of dif­fer­ent types of extra vir­gin olive oil from 1,500 acres of olive groves.

While O’Higgins is home to just 0.83 per­cent of all the country’s COVID-19 cases, this has not stopped Agri­cola Pobeña from tak­ing all the nec­es­sary safety pre­cau­tions.

It has been a dif­fer­ent har­vest with the COVID-19 fac­tor where we have had to mul­ti­ply the secu­rity mea­sures, tak­ing all pre­cau­tions to keep our team pro­tected and away from all kinds of infec­tions,” Manuel Reyes said. We all know that the pres­ence of a case within the team can be very com­pli­cated”

On top of con­tend­ing with the novel coro­n­avirus, the O’Higgins region remains in the midst of a drought, which made the har­vest a stress­ful one for the pro­duc­ers at Agri­cola Pobeña, but not impos­si­ble.

Despite every­thing that affects us today, we have man­aged to har­vest with­out prob­lems, with good yields and kilo­grams of fruit despite the dif­fi­cult year we had due to the drought and high tem­per­a­tures,” Manuel Reyes said.

He is more wor­ried about what the pan­demic will do to global mar­kets, espe­cially how it will impact long-term con­sump­tion and sales of olive oil.

Dif­fer­ent mar­kets have all con­tracted due to the cur­rent pan­demic, but we hope to con­tinue export­ing Chilean oils, as we have been doing and posi­tion­ing them among the best in the world,” Manuel Reyes said.

Agri­cola Pobeña

Not too far to the south­east of Agri­cola Pobeña’s groves sit those of Agroin­dus­trial Sir­a­cusa, the pro­ducer of the Aura olive oil brand.

Based in the val­ley of Cúrico, which boasts a cli­mate very sim­i­lar to the Mediter­ranean, Felipe Valle, the company’s export man­ager, said the pan­demic had cre­ated a unique set of chal­lenges for the com­pany, such as har­vest­ing effi­ciently and effec­tively while main­tain­ing gov­ern­ment-man­dated social dis­tanc­ing and hygiene stan­dards.

One of the great chal­lenges is effec­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tion regard­ing the mea­sures that must be used for the dif­fer­ent tasks, in order to guar­an­tee their ful­fill­ment and to be able to keep the com­pany run­ning,” he told Olive Oil Times.

In spite of the chal­lenges pre­sented by the pan­demic, Valle said that he expected a nor­mal har­vest this year in the Cúrico val­ley.

Cúrico sits in the region of Maule, which has seen nearly dou­ble the num­ber of infec­tions as neigh­bor­ing O’Higgins, with slightly more than 1,800 cases and 24 deaths (two more than have been recorded in O’Higgins).

We expect to have nor­mal pro­duc­tion, but with very good qual­ity oils, due to the good cli­mate that has made it pos­si­ble for us to coor­di­nate the har­vest based on the ideal stages of matu­rity,” Valle said. This allowed us to achieve intense oils, with good aro­mas and very good green fruiti­ness.”

How­ever, he acknowl­edged that not all of the country’s pro­duc­ers shared Agroin­dus­trial Siracusa’s good luck. Valle expects the drought to impact both the quan­tity and qual­ity of other pro­duc­ers’ olive oils.

With respect to the rest of the com­pa­nies, a nor­mal year is also expected, with­out los­ing sight of the fact that there are some that will see pro­duc­tion decrease due to the drought that has per­sisted for some years,” he said.

They are more affected by the yield, in terms of kilo­grams of oil per hectare, and with­out a doubt qual­ity will also be com­pro­mised. A grove man­aged under exces­sive water stress gives rise to more unbal­anced oils,” Valle added.

Back in the O’Higgins region, just a few miles east of Agri­cola Pobeña olive trees, the super high den­sity olive groves of Olivos del Sur sprawl over the rolling hills of Chile’s Cen­tral Val­ley.

Almazara Olisur

Since the com­pany sits in a fairly secluded part of the val­ley, far from any major cities or high­ways, there have not been any prob­lems with COVID-19 infec­tions.

How­ever, Clau­dio Lovaz­zano, the company’s head of mar­ket­ing, said that had not stopped Olivos del Sur from tak­ing pre­cau­tion­ary mea­sures. Even with no one get­ting sick, the pan­demic has caused logis­ti­cal delays for the com­pany.

Resources take more time to arrive: from machine parts to pack­ag­ing mate­ri­als, since we are deal­ing with par­tial and full lock­downs in sev­eral places within Chile,” he told Olive Oil Times.

In spite of chal­lenges stem­ming from the pan­demic and drought, Olivos del Sur expects a slightly bet­ter har­vest than usual. In 2019, the com­pany pro­duced six mil­lion liters of extra vir­gin olive oil.

Lovaz­zano attrib­uted this increase to invest­ments the com­pany has been mak­ing, includ­ing the incor­po­ra­tion of new tech­nol­ogy into the groves, which will help with resource man­age­ment and tim­ing the har­vest.

We are now imple­ment­ing our pre­ci­sion farm­ing project which, among other things, allows us to col­lect pre­cise data for every sin­gle tree in the row, allow­ing us to see it as an iso­lated pro­duc­tion unit,” he said. Through high-res­o­lu­tion images, we ana­lyze cli­mate, soil and other rel­e­vant infor­ma­tion.”

Global mar­kets are strug­gling and COVID-19 has made every­thing much more dif­fi­cult,” Lovaz­zano added. But times are chang­ing very quickly and we need to adapt.”


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