Production Rebounds in France Amid Climatic Challenges

Frost, hail and torrential rains dampened the 2020 olive harvest in France. It will still be better than last year and producers report that quality is as good as ever.

Photo: Louisa Sherman
Dec. 23, 2020
By Daniel Dawson
Photo: Louisa Sherman

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After a cat­a­strophic end to the 2019/20 crop year, in which the expected har­vest fell from 5,900 tons to just over 3,250 tons, olive oil pro­duc­tion in France looks set to rebound.

According to the lat­est fig­ures from the International Olive Council (IOC), France will pro­duce 5,200 tons in the cur­rent crop year. While this yield is slightly above the rolling five-year aver­age, it shows French pro­duc­tion trend­ing down­wards.

We have the low­est ever result in the seven years that we have been farm­ing this prop­erty and it amounts to a third of our best har­vest level ever. But, nature is kind and we have an excel­lent qual­ity oil with fine aro­mas.- Louisa Sherman, co-owner, Domaine de Gerbaud

Other esti­mates are a bit more con­ser­v­a­tive, with author and Olio Nuovo Days co-founder Emmanuelle Dechelette fore­cast­ing a pro­duc­tion of 3,500 tons in an arti­cle writ­ten for Juan Vilar Strategic Consultants. France Olive, the country’s offi­cial olive oil pro­duc­ers asso­ci­a­tion, has yet to pub­lish its own pro­duc­tion fig­ures.

The pro­duc­tion rebound comes after another chal­leng­ing year, in which bad weather in the spring and sum­mer once again dam­aged olive trees across the south of the coun­try.

Producers see the increas­ingly unpre­dictable and erratic weather afflict­ing the south of France as one of the main chal­lenges going for­ward.

The Covid-19 pan­demic also caused incon­ve­niences, both in terms of the logis­tics of the har­vest as well as slow­ing sales to restau­rants and the hos­pi­tal­ity sec­tor. While the har­vest itself was not impacted by national quar­an­tines, the abil­ity to repair and replace equip­ment dur­ing the spring was.

This is indeed what it is [another chal­leng­ing year of erratic weather], espe­cially for the ear­lier-har­vest­ing French areas and vari­eties that were hit by frost in the spring, which is a rather rare occur­rence,” said Henri Derepas, of Champsoleil, which is located in the hills near the south­east­ern city of Nice.

See Also: 2020 Harvest Updates

Paradoxically, our Alpes-Maritimes depart­ment is doing well with good over­all pro­duc­tiv­ity this year, while fur­ther west, the year promises to be very weak,” he told Olive Oil Times. This is partly due to the fact that our vari­ety is later and that, for us, the 2019/20 sea­son had been his­tor­i­cally cat­a­strophic.”

Overall, Derepas expects to har­vest about 35 tons of olives on his five-acre organic estate, of which around 12 tons will be used for table olives and the remain­ing 23 tons will be trans­formed into extra vir­gin olive oil.

business-europe-production-production-rebounds-in-france-amid-climatic-challenges-olive-oil-times

Photo: Henri Derepas

This year’s har­vest rep­re­sents a sig­nif­i­cant improve­ment in terms of both quan­tity and qual­ity for Derepas, whose 2019 har­vest was dam­aged by a scorch­ing June. The unsea­son­ably hot weather dur­ing a cru­cial stage of flow­er­ing dam­aged many of the fruits and led to a pre­ma­ture fruit drop on many of his trees.

Quality is also one of the char­ac­ter­is­tics of this sea­son and is due to a com­bi­na­tion of pos­i­tive fac­tors: rea­son­able spring rains at the right time, a dry sum­mer with­out exces­sive tem­per­a­ture, low pres­sure from the fruit fly and the absence of the Dalmaticosis fun­gus,” he said.

The oils pro­duced to date are very har­mo­nious and com­ply with the typ­i­cal­ity of our Huile d’o­live de Nice PDO,” Derepas added.

However, the pro­ducer pointed out that not every­one had been as for­tu­nate. Just a few val­leys over from where Derepas’ groves are cul­ti­vated, Storm Alex wreaked havoc back in October.

business-europe-production-production-rebounds-in-france-amid-climatic-challenges-olive-oil-times

Henri Derepas

In about 24 hours on October 2, 450 mil­lime­ters of rain fell on north­ern Italy and south­ern France, wash­ing away roads, build­ings, elec­tri­cal and tele­phone lines as well as plenty of crops.

From an agri­cul­tural point of view, it is the veg­etable farms located at the bot­tom of the val­ley and the farms that have suf­fered,” Derepas said. The fam­ily olive groves – mainly in the Roya Valley – suf­fered less because they are located on hill­sides.”

On the other hand, due to lack of road net­work, many are no longer acces­si­ble,” he added. The gusts of wind caused pre­ma­ture falls of healthy olives – up to one-third of the pro­duc­tion on the most exposed plots.”

The har­vest in these areas was also impacted by the inabil­ity of work­ers to arrive in the groves to har­vest as well as con­nec­tiv­ity prob­lems between the groves and mills.

A week later, var­i­ous hail storms in the Paillon val­leys (fur­ther south) and the hin­ter­land of Grasse (fur­ther west) caused fur­ther dam­age to the fruits on the eve of har­vest,” Derepas said.

About 200 kilo­me­ters to the west of where Derepas har­vests his olives, Louisa Sherman, the co-owner of Domaine de Gerbaud, said she was expect­ing a small har­vest but a high-qual­ity yield this year.

business-europe-production-production-rebounds-in-france-amid-climatic-challenges-olive-oil-times

Photo: Louisa Sherman

It has been a dis­as­ter for some farm­ers in France,” she told Olive Oil Times. A spell of frost and unde­sir­able rains on the olive tree flow­ers dur­ing the fruit-form­ing phase was the cause of olives not form­ing.”

We have the low­est ever result in the seven years that we have been farm­ing this prop­erty and it amounts to a third of our best har­vest level ever,” she added. But, nature is kind and we have an excel­lent qual­ity oil with fine aro­mas.”

Sherman’s agri­cul­tural spe­cial­ist, François Aurouze, added that he has observed a 70 per­cent smaller har­vest in the regions of Var and Alpilles, near Marseilles, and an aver­age loss of 50 per­cent among pro­duc­ers in Luberon, far­ther west and where Domaine de Gerbaud is located.

I think that two causes are at the ori­gin of this small har­vest: the frost of March 27 and 28, 2020 and a few days of rain at the time of flow­er­ing,” he said.

See Also: The Best Olive Oils From France

However, there is another impend­ing storm that is wor­ry­ing Sherman this year: the prospect of a no deal’ Brexit. After vot­ing to leave the European Union in 2016, the dead­line for the United Kingdom and the E.U. to reach a deal is rapidly approach­ing.

Overall, Brexit is unlikely to have a pro­found impact on the French olive oil pro­duc­tion sec­tor, as the vast major­ity of French pro­duc­tion is con­sumed domes­ti­cally. It will, how­ever, com­pli­cate Sherman’s oper­a­tion, who lives part-time in the U.K. and exports olive oil there.

If Brexit nego­ti­a­tions fail, we face tar­iffs of around £1.05 ($1.40) per liter,” she said. This could be crit­i­cal for us as French olive oil is dearer than most due to high wages in France. Premium French extra vir­gin olive oil could be fur­ther mar­gin­al­ized com­pared to Italian, Greek and Spanish olive oils [in the U.K.] due to increased prices.”

business-europe-production-production-rebounds-in-france-amid-climatic-challenges-olive-oil-times

Away from the impo­si­tion of tar­iffs on goods trav­el­ing across the English Channel, the logis­tics of farm­ing in France with­out E.U. cit­i­zen­ship are also caus­ing headaches for Sherman.

Travel and travel lim­i­ta­tions pose real prob­lems for us,” she said. Unless you apply for a visa, there is a lim­ited amount of time you can be in the E.U. every six months.”

For farm­ing pur­poses, one must be on site for cer­tain peri­ods to mon­i­tor, super­vise and just get down to some hard work,” Sherman added. I will cer­tainly inquire about spe­cial dis­pen­sa­tion to non-res­i­dent farm­ers when the time comes.”

The U.K. is set to leave the E.U., de facto, on January 1. (It tech­ni­cally left on December 31, 2019, but entered a year-long tran­si­tion period in which noth­ing changed).

While there is some hope a deal can be reached before then, Sherman along with many other agri­cul­tural pro­duc­ers will be wait­ing to see what exactly the future trad­ing and travel rela­tions between the two sides will be.


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