The Growing Pains of Albania’s Ascendant Olive Oil Sector

Production has doubled in the past decade and is expected to continue to rise. Some worry that quality will not follow suit.

(Photo: Donika Olive Oil)
By Daniel Dawson
Mar. 22, 2024 13:18 UTC
0
(Photo: Donika Olive Oil)

Albania is poised for an olive oil pro­duc­tion rev­o­lu­tion, but lead­ing experts and pro­duc­ers worry that qual­ity may not keep pace.

According to Mivan Peci, a con­sul­tant for the Albanian Olive Oil Association and food engi­neer at Musai Olive Oil, the coun­try has pro­duced an annual aver­age of 20,670 tons of olive oil in the past three years. Before 2020/21, annual pro­duc­tion hov­ered between 10,000 and 13,000 tons.

From 2009 to 2013, the Albanian gov­ern­ment invested a lot of money in the olive oil sec­tor,” Peci said.

See Also:Producers in Portugal Celebrate Country’s Second-Highest Yield

The gov­ern­ment iden­ti­fied olives as a strate­gic crop since the trees grow well in the country’s Mediterranean cli­mate and olive cul­ti­va­tion does not require the same cap­i­tal or labor as other crops.

According to Peci, the num­ber of olive trees in the coun­try has increased by 30 per­cent, with many new trees – mostly the local Kalinjot vari­ety and Frantoio from Italy – enter­ing full matu­rity in 2021/22. He antic­i­pates pro­duc­tion will con­tinue to increase over time.

The increase in pro­duc­tion in the past three years is due to the increase in the num­ber of trees pro­duc­ing olives,” agron­o­mist Bruno Musaj con­firmed. Albania went from eight mil­lion trees pro­duc­ing olives to about 12 mil­lion.”

(Musaj spoke to Olive Oil Times through two trans­la­tors in sep­a­rate inter­views: Bianti Danaj, founder of Donika Olive Oil, and Kejda Musaj, his sis­ter and mar­ket­ing man­ager of Musai Olive Oil. He is head of pro­duc­tion for both com­pa­nies.)

The gov­ern­ment helped many Albanian farm­ers through grants to increase their pro­duc­tion and adopt bet­ter olive cul­ti­va­tion, pro­duc­tion and stor­age meth­ods,” Musaj added. He also expects pro­duc­tion to con­tinue ris­ing in the com­ing years.

production-business-europe-olive-oil-times

Olives grove located in southern Albania

According to Danaj, mar­ket forces also con­tributed to ris­ing pro­duc­tion. As global demand for olive oil increased, many Albanian farm­ers found grow­ing olives appeal­ing. At the same time, the gov­ern­ment also invested in new olive mills to increase the qual­ity of olive oil pro­duced.

As of 2022, there were 480 pro­cess­ing lines in Albania, of which 160 are new, with new tech­nol­ogy – mostly from Pieralisi and Alfa Laval – and they pro­duce high-qual­ity extra vir­gin olive oil,” Peci said.

Olive oil yields are trend­ing upward, but pro­duc­tion in the 2023/24 crop year is antic­i­pated to decrease for a sec­ond con­sec­u­tive year. After reach­ing a record-high 26,000 tons in 2021/22, pro­duc­tion fell to 20,000 tons in 2022/23 and is expected to reach just 16,000 tons in the cur­rent har­vest.

The pro­duc­tion decline is mostly explained by cli­matic fac­tors,” Peci said. Over the past two years, the his­toric drought expe­ri­enced across the Mediterranean basin pre­vented most of the trees from devel­op­ing new buds, lim­it­ing the amount of olives they could bear.

Along with the drought, Peci said Albania nor­mally expe­ri­ences large swings between the on’ and off-years’ in the nat­ural alter­nate bear­ing cycle of the olive trees due to poor agro­nomic prac­tices.

On and off years

Olive trees have a nat­ural cycle of alter­nat­ing high and low pro­duc­tion years, known as on-years” and off-years,” respec­tively. During an on-year,” the olive trees bear a greater quan­tity of fruit, result­ing in increased olive oil pro­duc­tion. This is influ­enced by var­i­ous fac­tors, includ­ing weather con­di­tions, such as rain­fall and tem­per­a­ture, as well as the tree’s age and over­all health. Conversely, an off-year” is char­ac­ter­ized by a reduced yield of olives. This can occur due to fac­tors like stress from the pre­vi­ous on year, poor agro­nomic prac­tices, unfa­vor­able weather con­di­tions or nat­ural fluc­tu­a­tions in the tree’s pro­duc­tiv­ity.

While there has been some improve­ment in recent years, Peci said most farm­ers are still not using the best prun­ing tech­niques, fer­til­iz­ing their olive trees or remov­ing unhar­vested fruits, all of which have con­tributed to the con­sec­u­tive pro­duc­tion declines.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Musaj also wor­ries that the gov­ern­men­t’s sig­nif­i­cant invest­ment in mod­ern mills has not been accom­pa­nied by ade­quate train­ing pro­grams, mean­ing many infor­mally trained millers will not get the most out of their mod­ern equip­ment.

These fac­tors are all part of the grow­ing pains that Peci, Musaj and oth­ers believe the Albanian olive oil sec­tor faces.

One of the main obsta­cles to over­com­ing these grow­ing pains is the highly frag­mented nature of the country’s olive farms, most of which are located in the hilly regions of Vlorë County in the south.

In 1990, the gov­ern­ment gave each fam­ily 1.2 hectares of land, so it is very dif­fi­cult to har­vest effi­ciently,” Musaj said. Additionally, most of the Kalinjot trees are located in the hills, so it is almost impos­si­ble to do machine har­vest­ing.”

Peci said the solu­tion to this prob­lem would be for farm­ers to form coop­er­a­tives and asso­ci­a­tions, low­er­ing pro­duc­tion costs and allow­ing farm­ers to invest in mech­a­niz­ing the har­vest.

For its part, Danaj said Donika Olive Oil only pur­chases hand-har­vested cer­ti­fied organic olives, which are milled within three hours. As a result, he cites find­ing enough labor as another chal­lenge the com­pany has faced in recent years.

A lot of Albanians that would have worked on these farms have migrated because they want a bet­ter life in Western Europe or the United States,” Danaj said. The exo­dus of work­ers has resulted in short­ages, forc­ing com­pa­nies to pay higher wages and increas­ing the cost of pro­duc­tion.

Due to Albania’s pre­vail­ing olive oil cul­ture and eco­nomic sit­u­a­tion, Danaj said that most Albanians are unwill­ing to pay high prices for local extra vir­gin olive oil.

Albania pro­duces a lot of olive oil [for a coun­try with fewer than three mil­lion peo­ple], and every­body has some type of con­nec­tion to a per­son who pro­duces olive oil,” he said. Since olive oil is abun­dant, it’s very hard to dif­fer­en­ti­ate or to tell peo­ple that our olive oil is bet­ter than your uncle’s olive oil.”

As a result, Danaj focuses on exports and is cur­rently in talks with part­ners in the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States, not­ing that inter­est has also come from China and Japan.

Musai Olive Oil, which has a mod­ern mill located amidst neigh­bor­ing olive groves, fol­lows a very sim­i­lar busi­ness model. The com­pany, which pro­duced the award-win­ning The Illyrian Press brand, also exports to the U.S. and north­ern European coun­tries.

However, high olive oil prices over the pre­vi­ous two years have also ham­pered efforts to pro­mote indi­vid­ual-pack­aged extra vir­gin olive oil exports.

These prices have incen­tivized farm­ers to focus on quan­tity over qual­ity. The vast major­ity of this olive oil is exported in bulk to Italy to be pack­aged and resold.

Even Donika and Musai took advan­tage of the sit­u­a­tion. Market prices have been very good for the aver­age Albanian farmer,” Danaj said.

Peci sees two pos­si­ble solu­tions to the prob­lem of high pro­duc­tion costs, which con­tribute to lower domes­tic sales.

For more than 10 years, the Albanian gov­ern­ment has not sub­si­dized the pro­duc­tion of extra vir­gin olive oil,” he said. Previously, the gov­ern­ment gave pro­duc­ers the equiv­a­lent of €1 per liter of extra vir­gin olive oil pro­duced.

This does not push farm­ers and mills to strive for high-qual­ity olive oil,” Peci added. Subsidizing high-qual­ity pro­duc­tion may lower the price for inter­nal con­sump­tion as well.”

The other solu­tion is lob­by­ing to cre­ate an Albanian Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), which he said would add value to the prod­uct and the Kalinjot vari­ety. The coun­try already has 36 wines pro­tected by the European Union with PDOs.

Along with Peci and the Musaj sib­lings, Danaj believes Albania must cre­ate a cul­ture around high-qual­ity extra vir­gin olive oil pro­duc­tion focussed around the Kalinjot, which is nat­u­rally high in polyphe­nols and fea­tures a dis­tinct robust fla­vor with accen­tu­ated earthy and bit­ter notes.

We hope to shine light on our pre­cious Kalinjot olive vari­ety, which can­not be found any­where in the world but Albania, and holds a unique story and sig­nif­i­cance to our cul­ture,” Danaj con­cluded.


Share this article

Advertisement
Advertisement

Related Articles