Rain and Snow Across California Too Late for Slumping Olive Oil Production

While the significant snowfall means most of the state has escaped extreme drought, production is still expected to fall to a four-year low.

Bakersfield, California
By Daniel Dawson
Mar. 6, 2023 23:26 UTC
1057
Bakersfield, California

California’s olive farm­ers are sigh­ing with relief after the state received its largest snow­fall since 1983.

A series of snow­storms at the begin­ning of March blan­keted a sig­nif­i­cant swatch of the Golden State – from Lake Tahoe in the north to the sub­urbs of Los Angeles – in one to three meters of snow.

According to the United States Drought Monitor, inland snow cou­pled with ample rain along the coasts means some of the state’s most fruit­ful olive-grow­ing regions are no longer in a state of severe” or extreme” drought.

See Also:Awards for California Producers Validate High EVOO Standards

The recent abun­dance of pre­cip­i­ta­tion in the Sierra Nevada and through­out California has greatly reduced short-term drought con­di­tions through­out the state,” Andrew Schwartz, the lead sci­en­tist and man­ager at the Central Sierra Snow Laboratory at the University of California-Berkeley, told Newsweek.

However, a sig­nif­i­cant amount of ground­wa­ter recharge is still needed before the long-term drought can be con­sid­ered over, and we will need sev­eral above-aver­age years for that to hap­pen,” he added.

Recent rain and snow may pro­vide a reprieve for olive grow­ers in the com­ing 2023/24 crop year after the worst drought con­di­tions of the past 130 years affected olive devel­op­ment and fruition in spring 2022.

As a result, olive oil pro­duc­tion in California, which is respon­si­ble for vir­tu­ally all U.S. pro­duc­tion, is expected to slip to a four-year low.

The effects of the drought com­pounded erratic cli­matic events in spring 2022 and some of the state’s pro­duc­ers enter­ing an off-year’ in the nat­ural alter­nate bear­ing cycle of the olive tree.

Producers across the Golden State said warm weather in February 2022 resulted in many olive trees blos­som­ing early, fol­lowed by a cold spring snap which dam­aged the blos­soms and pre­vented fruit from form­ing.

While coastal grow­ers were largely spared from this event, some reported tree dam­age from the high winds. In addi­tion, many pro­duc­ers with­out irri­ga­tion saw their trees suf­fer the con­se­quences of the per­sis­tent drought.

The Olive Oil Commission of California, which rep­re­sents 90 per­cent of the state’s pro­duc­tion, pre­dicted that this year’s yield would fall to 1.8 mil­lion gal­lons in its pre­lim­i­nary esti­mate pub­lished in July.

While the OOCC has not pub­lished its final fig­ures and did not respond to ques­tions from Olive Oil Times about the 2022/23 crop year, pro­duc­ers across the state said the final yields would likely be lower.

Cliff Little, the pres­i­dent of Corto Olive, the sec­ond-largest olive oil pro­ducer in the U.S., said the erratic weather sig­nif­i­cantly affected some groves in the state while spar­ing oth­ers.

Our grow­ers in the north were more affected by the freeze in the spring that dam­aged the buds,” he told Olive Oil Times. We did­n’t have a very good fruit set this year. We saw that par­tic­u­larly in and around us in the Lodi-Stockton area.”

However, Little added that some of Corto Olive’s grow­ers from the San Joaquin Valley, which runs through the state’s cen­ter, and parts of south­ern California were far less affected. A lit­tle bit fur­ther south had really nice crops this year,” he said

We got no rain­fall before the har­vest,” Little added. All of our orchards are irri­gated, so we have the ben­e­fit of being able to time irri­ga­tions a bit to pre­pare the olives on the trees for har­vest and did­n’t have any issues with mois­ture.”

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While the drought was a sig­nif­i­cant prob­lem across California, Little said the sparse rain that did fall com­pli­cated the start of the har­vest in late October, forc­ing the team to start and stop spo­rad­i­cally to avoid dam­ag­ing the trees.

Meanwhile, at the foot of the Sierra Nevada, Giulio Zavolta, co-owner of Olivaia Olive Estate in Lindsay, con­firmed a lower har­vest than usual.

Last year [2021/22] was a low har­vest year, and so we were hop­ing for a good year this year, but it did­n’t turn out to be a good year,” he told Olive Oil Times. We’ve done a lit­tle bit bet­ter than last year, but we’re prob­a­bly at 40 per­cent of what we could have har­vested.”

In the spring, we got freak­ishly cold weather,” Zavolta added. The trees had already bloomed, and it froze. In our case, we lost 25 to 30 per­cent of our bloom. Then, shortly after, we had tem­per­a­tures above 100 ºF (more than 38 ºC). It was­n’t long, but still, that is a huge swing that can’t be good for any tree just start­ing and try­ing to set some olives.”

Zavolta believes the drought is par­tially respon­si­ble for the low har­vests of the past few years. His tra­di­tional grove com­prises 125-year-old trees. The fan jets he installed to irri­gate them do not reach the entire root struc­ture, so the trees also require rain which was scarce in his cor­ner of California.

In years past, we always used to ben­e­fit from the snow­pack, but because that would replen­ish our ground­wa­ter,” he said.

This year’s above-aver­age snow­pack should restore some of Zavolta’s ground­wa­ter and allow him to pump more than he was able to in the past cou­ple of years, which he hopes means the com­ing crop year will be more fruit­ful than the pre­vi­ous.

Despite the reprieve, California is expected to con­tinue to become hot­ter and drier in the com­ing decades.

As a result, Zavolta believes the state’s olive oil sec­tor will con­tinue to tran­si­tion toward mod­ern olive groves, which are more water effi­cient. However, he hopes there will still be sup­port for his­toric olive groves, includ­ing his own.

I would hate to see all of that her­itage being torn out of the ground to make room for mod­ern acreage,” he said. There’s a spe­cial place in the world for cen­ten­nial trees. We have them, and we should be keep­ing them.”



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