In Tuscany, Farmers Cope With Climate Challenges While Striving for Top Quality

After last year's outstanding harvest, Tuscan producers are preparing for a lighter one. A hot and dry summer is partly to blame.
Olive groves on the coast of Monte Argentario in south Tuscany. (Ylenia Granitto)
Oct. 21, 2021
Ylenia Granitto

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As the new har­vest gets under­way, Tuscan olive grow­ers take stock of their achieve­ments while mak­ing plans and fore­casts for the future.

They have an out­stand­ing har­vest behind them, both in the quan­tity of fruit and prod­uct qual­ity, which made Tuscany the most-awarded Italian region at the 2021 NYIOOC World Olive Oil Competition.

Overall, the olives suf­fered due to a con­comi­tance between lack of water and high tem­per­a­tures.- Claudio Cantini, Institute for BioEconomy of the National Research Council

The last one was an excel­lent sea­son,” Gionni Pruneti, of Frantoio Pruneti, told Olive Oil Times. We had an excep­tional win­ter and spring, with the right rains and then flow­er­ing at the right time, a sum­mer that was dry but not too hot, and in the end, we achieved excep­tional results: abun­dant fruits from which we obtained excel­lent prod­ucts.”

This year, instead, in Chianti, some prob­lems occurred with flow­er­ing that was delayed by late frosts,” he added. Some plants bloomed later, even in June, and we noted that vari­eties such as Moraiolo suf­fered par­tic­u­larly from this lag. Many flow­ers were harmed by the heat and with­ered with­out being able to pol­li­nate.”

See Also: 2021 Harvest Updates

Due to these con­di­tions, Tuscan pro­duc­ers and their col­leagues in Italy’s cen­tral and north­ern regions expect a lower pro­duc­tion, which pre­lim­i­nary fore­casts have borne out.

Last year, a series of ideal con­di­tions led to a very good har­vest in our region,” said Claudio Cantini. He is in charge of the Santa Paolina exper­i­men­tal farm of the Institute for BioEconomy of the National Research Council (IBE-CNR) in Follonica.

The high num­ber of awards obtained at the NYIOOC by Tuscan farm­ers is the result of favor­able weather con­di­tions, cou­pled with the almost total absence of pests like the olive fruit fly,” he added. Fruit ripen­ing took place smoothly, the olives arrived healthy to the mill, and there­fore the qual­ity was very high, with peaks of excel­lence.”

According to Cantini, the pres­ence of the olive fruit fly was low this year too. Still, the short­age of rain was a sig­nif­i­cant prob­lem, espe­cially along the coast, which fol­lowed the pro­duc­tion trend recorded in cen­tral Italy.

We have to con­sider that, for exam­ple, in the area of Grosseto, a lit­tle over 20 mil­lime­ters of rain fell from January to August,” he said. Overall, the olives suf­fered due to a con­comi­tance between lack of water and high tem­per­a­tures, which in some areas abun­dantly exceeded 35 °C, approach­ing 40 °C. In response to these stresses, a sig­nif­i­cant fruit drop occurred, espe­cially in the non-irri­gated orchards.”

In some areas, par­tic­u­larly on the coast, farm­ers had prob­lems with poor fruit growth that resulted in a preva­lence of the pit over the pulp, said Cantini.

This could be a year with ups and downs,” he added. We still could find excel­lent pro­duc­tions in small areas with a favor­able micro­cli­mate, in par­tic­u­lar where some rain has arrived dur­ing the sum­mer.”

Giulio Betti, a mete­o­rol­o­gist of the IBE-CNR, told Olive Oil Times that the cur­rent weather trends sug­gest, for the next two months in Tuscany, aver­age or slightly higher sea­sonal tem­per­a­tures. We expect that through November the rain lev­els could be slightly below aver­age.”

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Olive groves in Val d’Orcia (Ylenia Granitto)

Summer 2021 in Italy was the sixth hottest since 1800, with a national anom­aly com­pared to the 1981 to 2010 cli­ma­tol­ogy of +1.55 °C, Betti wrote in a tweet.

Over the last 15 to 20 years, heat waves have increased in inten­sity, dura­tion, and fre­quency through­out Italy,” he said. They affect crops, and it is a fact that they will increase, becom­ing more intense.”

The lat­est BBC report, how­ever, states that even if we man­age to con­tain global warm­ing by 1.5 °C, the effects of what we have done so far will still have an impact for years,” Betti added.

Moreover, drought per­sisted for months through­out Italy, which means that it is not so easy to get out of it,” he con­tin­ued. We need a series of orga­nized per­tur­ba­tions, which are not ruinous local storms that cause dam­age, but exten­sive and wide­spread rain­falls that slowly mit­i­gate the agri­cul­tural drought and, at the same time, reduce the risk of fires and replen­ish ground­wa­ter sup­plies as well as the reser­voirs which serve for irri­ga­tion.”

After a long dry period in mid-September, some rain has fallen, first in south­ern Italy and then, by the end of the month, in the cen­tral and north­ern areas of the coun­try. However, the first sig­nif­i­cant pre­cip­i­ta­tion through­out the penin­sula did not fall until early October.

While some stud­ies indi­cate a cer­tain ten­dency toward the inten­si­fi­ca­tion of pre­cip­i­ta­tion in terms of the amount and dura­tion, we must spec­ify that this kind of fore­cast in the mid-long term is com­plex,” Betti said.

On the other hand, what becomes clear is that we will see an increas­ingly fre­quent alter­na­tion between years with very abun­dant rain­fall and years with extremely scarce rain­fall,” he added. This sequence of very dry and very rainy peri­ods is cer­tainly one of the fac­tors that will make it more dif­fi­cult for olive grow­ers to plan their farm activ­i­ties every year.”

At Pruneti’s organic farm, new olive trees were recently planted, which need to be irri­gated in their early years, a stan­dard prac­tice.

The great heat of the sum­mer caused water stress to some plants,” Pruneti said. On the other hand, it nat­u­rally safe­guarded them from the olive fruit fly, whose activ­ity in July was imme­di­ately blocked.”

A long period of drought endured in our region, espe­cially in Maremma, yet it was those severe heat waves that caused con­cern to us farm­ers, as in some moments we reached 38 °C to 40 °C, and with such tem­per­a­tures, the olive tree drops the fruits to defend itself,” he added.

These cer­tainly are issues that, from an agro­nomic point of view, we must learn to man­age,” Pruneti con­cluded. At this rate, pre­dis­pos­ing at least an emer­gency irri­ga­tion sys­tem sounds like a manda­tory path.”


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