Producers Express Alarm in Latest Olive Oil Times Survey

Producers say they face ever-growing hardships from the effects of a global pandemic, climate change, higher production costs, market instability and a persistent lack of consumer understanding about their products.

By OOT Staff
Jan. 25, 2022 15:44 UTC

The last twelve months have posed chal­lenges for every­one around the world. For olive oil pro­duc­ers, whose work has never been easy, it has been a par­tic­u­larly try­ing period accord­ing to the results of an Olive Oil Times sur­vey.

From hard to find labor hands, all the way to the tremen­dous increase of the expenses, every­thing is going through the roof.- Demosthenis Chronis, Olea Estates

Farmers and pro­duc­ers say they face ever-grow­ing threats to their liveli­hoods, from the effects of a global pan­demic and cli­mate change to higher pro­duc­tion costs, mar­ket insta­bil­ity and a per­sis­tent lack of con­sumer under­stand­ing about their prod­ucts.

The sur­vey, which was sent to 4,253 olive oil pro­duc­ers in 36 coun­tries, asked a range of ques­tions about the 2021/22 har­vest sea­son.

The results sug­gest there are many in the sec­tor who feel nearly over­whelmed by an end­less onslaught of hin­drances affect­ing every stage of the process from olive cul­ti­va­tion to mar­ket­ing and ful­fil­ment.

The his­tor­i­cally oner­ous task of pro­duc­ing extra vir­gin olive oil prof­itably has become even more con­found­ing lately, the sur­vey responses sug­gest.

The sit­u­a­tion was not dire every­where. There were pro­duc­ers who reported only a small impact on their busi­nesses from pan­demic-related inter­rup­tions and there are even those who see a lit­tle global warm­ing as not par­tic­u­larly prob­lem­atic for their micro­cli­mates.

The over­all assess­ment of the har­vest sea­son, how­ever, painted a grim­mer pic­ture than ear­lier sur­veys.

Farmers and bot­tlers were mostly dis­ap­pointed with the actual or pro­jected quan­tity of oil pro­duced, or yield, in the 2021/22 har­vest, which began last fall for Northern Hemisphere grow­ers and will con­tinue until late spring when the last olives in the Southern Hemisphere are processed.

The assess­ment by farm­ers of this sea­son’s yield is sig­nif­i­cantly lower than last year’s score of 68, while the qual­ity score, which reflects pro­duc­ers’ appraisals of their oil’s intrin­sic value, edged higher from 82 in the pre­vi­ous cam­paign.

Climate Change

Farmers blamed exces­sive heat, drought and oth­er­wise poor weather for the lower yield, com­pounded by labor short­ages and staff out­ages that stymied har­vest oper­a­tions. Wildfires claimed groves from California to Greece.

Which of the fol­low­ing have affected your har­vest this year?

We are sure that this is due to cli­mate change which, in addi­tion to the weather, also changes the pests and dis­eases that our olive groves were sus­cep­ti­ble to,” said Luís Brito at Azeites do Cobral, who has been pro­duc­ing cer­ti­fied organic olive oil for about 15 years.

Since then, we have noticed that, in order to pro­duce an excel­lent organic olive oil, the har­vest has to be [moved back] by one month. Olive groves either adapt to the new cli­matic require­ments or will cer­tainly have to go up in lat­i­tude,” he said.


Luís Brito (right), Azeites do Cobral

Other pro­duc­ers echoed that acknowl­edge­ment of a chang­ing land­scape for olive grow­ing and oil pro­duc­tion. While olive trees have always been cycli­cal — a bumper har­vest fol­lows a poor one, and so on — sea­soned farm­ers are see­ing and say­ing things that express the unprece­dented con­di­tions they’re fac­ing.

Mostly because of drought, in Turkey, we had an approx­i­mately 70-per­cent decrease in the amount of olives we’ve har­vested this year,” reported Uğur Özen. Although it is what we call high sea­son,’ [mills] can run only a few mid-week days of January in Milas, the Olive Capital of Turkey. High infla­tion and insanely ris­ing har­vest­ing and pro­duc­tion costs like gas, elec­tric­ity and labor are the other and darker sides of the moon.”

There is a great need for an action plan for the short­age of goods com­ing in the near future,” Rhizoma Olive Farms’ Tasos Anestis told Olive Oil Times. Ecosystems which were sta­ble in terms of pop­u­la­tion den­sity and diver­sity have changed dra­mat­i­cally.”


Tasos Anestis, Rhizoma Olive Farms

Our cli­mate changes at a dra­matic rate and we need to mit­i­gate this,” Anestis con­tin­ued. A dynamic olive farm can sequester tons of CO2 and reduce the imme­di­ate effects of this global prob­lem. Olive oil pro­duc­ers are hon­est and down to earth peo­ple who are striv­ing on a daily basis to leave their mark on this ever­chang­ing world.”

There was a sense shared by respon­dents in nearly every region that the chang­ing cli­mate con­di­tions put olive oil pro­duc­ers at a uniquely pre­car­i­ous cross­road.


We, as olive oil pro­duc­ers and farm­ers need an equiv­a­lent to Tourism Declares Climate Emergency,” said Debra Carol Haddock of Casale Prato delle Coccinelle, refer­ring to an emer­gency ini­tia­tive of tourism indus­try stake­hold­ers advo­cat­ing for cli­mate action.

John Gambini, the pro­pri­etor of Texas Hill Country Olive Company, put it clearly: We believe cli­mate change to be the great­est long-term threat to the olive indus­try.”

Covid Crisis

The imme­di­ate and rip­pling effects of the Covid cri­sis has had a stun­ning effect on pro­duc­ers. From a lack of har­vest work­ers to shut­tered hos­pi­tal­ity cus­tomers and empty farm­house lodg­ings, there were few who saw the sit­u­a­tion improv­ing any­time soon.

Covid-19 has been the major fac­tor that impacted our sec­tor. From hard-to-find labor hands, all the way to the tremen­dous increase of the expenses (ship­ping charges, export fees, fer­til­izer prices), every­thing is going through the roof,” said Demosthenis Chronis, owner of Olea Estates in Sparta, Greece.


Olea Estates

Apart from the dev­as­tat­ing human­i­tar­ian costs of the pan­demic, pro­duc­ers said the dry­ing up of orders from restau­rants, hotels and other so-called Horeca cus­tomers hit them par­tic­u­larly hard.

Those estab­lish­ments, who typ­i­cally trum­pet their use of fresh, local prod­ucts can serve as a life­line to smaller pro­duc­ers who are less likely to be able to reach buy­ers in broader mar­kets. It’s no sur­prise that the inter­rup­tions in Horeca impacted so many of the pro­duc­ers who responded to our ques­tions.

Labor Shortages

Traditional olive oil har­vest­ing, which still applies to the vast major­ity of the world’s farms, is labor-inten­sive by def­i­n­i­tion. Farmhands, who often migrate with the ripen­ing olive, were in an even shorter sup­ply for the 2021/22 cam­paign.


Quinta dos Olmais Lda

For oth­ers, the crux of their prob­lems came down to obtain­ing needed sup­plies and the move­ment of their fin­ished prod­ucts. Logistics is the most severe issue,” said George Colletti of Fratelli Colletti. Six weeks of wait­ing and we are still wait­ing for our con­tainer to become avail­able.”


The opti­mism of last year, when it seemed like the pan­demic would sub­side and tourists were search­ing for more mean­ing­ful des­ti­na­tions such as olive farms, has given way to pro­longed vacan­cies and mostly empty rooms. Still, there was an uptick in domes­tic trav­ellers noted by some hosts and, with more peo­ple stay­ing close to home, a renewed focus on healthy cook­ing ingre­di­ents.

Covid brought an increased inter­est in tourism and vis­its to our farm,” said Curtis Poling at Woodpecker Trail Olive Farm in the south­ern U.S. state of Georgia.


Woodpecker Trail Olive Farm

Apart from the global leviathans of cli­mate change and Covid, there were plenty of regional aggra­va­tions that held pro­duc­ers back this year.

Systemic Challenges

Among the sur­vey responses were calls for gov­ern­ment action and col­lab­o­ra­tion among smaller pro­duc­ers who find them­selves increas­ingly vul­ner­a­ble in a fast-chang­ing mar­ket.

In Italy, a great part of olive oil pro­duc­tion is in the hands of many lit­tle farms who make high-qual­ity prod­ucts,” said Andrea Maffei, who runs Agriturismo Loggia del Centone in Matraia. Without a long-term aggre­ga­tion pol­icy, there will be no space for inno­va­tion and oil pro­duc­tion will shrink rapidly in many regions.

We are mainly affected by the eco­nom­i­cal cri­sis and the unpre­dictable gov­ern­ment actions in Turkey,” said Mehmet Taki, the owner of Bata Tarim ve Gida Urunleri A.S., a farm over­look­ing the entrance of the Dardanelle Straits.

The coun­try is almost in total dis­ar­ray mak­ing it impos­si­ble to plan any­thing. As a result of the eco­nom­i­cal cri­sis inter­nal con­sump­tion is drop­ping sub­stan­tially,” he said. Last year’s export ban has given for­eign buy­ers cold feet. Prices on goods and ser­vices are chang­ing every day. It is some­what chaotic.”

Can Aytekin, the owner of Canemre Olive and Olive Oil Company, also blamed tar­iffs for adding fuel to the fire. High cus­toms taxes are a major obsta­cle for Turkish olive pro­duc­ers who want to export their high-qual­ity olive oil to European Union coun­tries,” he said.


Can Aytekin, Canemre Olive and Olive Oil Company

Raouf Ellouze, owner of Huilerie Raouf Ellouze in Tunisia also bemoaned E.U. levies: Export reg­u­la­tions should change between [Europe] and our coun­tries,” he wrote. They should open their mar­ket for our oil.”

Consumer Confusion

Even if olive farm­ing and extra vir­gin olive oil pro­duc­tion were easy — and it isn’t — pro­duc­ers tell us that among their top con­cerns is the con­tin­ued lack of pub­lic knowl­edge con­cern­ing olive oil qual­ity and value, which they see as a key to the sec­tor’s future.

Feeding in the vac­uum of con­sumer under­stand­ing are low-qual­ity bot­tlers and major retail­ers who sell sub­stan­dard prod­ucts at prices below the cost of eth­i­cal pro­duc­tion.

The dig­ni­fi­ca­tion of the sec­tor is prin­ci­pal,” said Emma Rovira from her farm, Molí dels Torms in Catalonia, Spain. The mar­ket must know the impor­tance of farm­ers and cul­ti­va­tion, and the farm­ers should be proud of the work we do. Dignifying our work will empower the value of the prod­ucts we make.”


Emma Rovira (center), Molí dels Torms

“[We need] greater recog­ni­tion of qual­ity prod­ucts with low acid­ity and high polyphe­nols — organic prod­ucts and qual­ity marks such as PDO and PGI,” said Cristoforo Bacchi, the owner of Bacchi Azienda Olearia Siciliana.

Finding avail­able pick­ers and organic mills will­ing to open early enough to be able to make the best qual­ity early-har­vest EVOO are big chal­lenges, but they are eclipsed by ram­pant olive oil fraud which severely and neg­a­tively impacts the price at which hon­est olive oil can be sold,” said Françoise de Valera Rose at Oli 4. Good EVOO will become extinct due to finan­cial pres­sure on hon­est farm­ers.

Inflation is hav­ing yet another omi­nous impact on con­sumer choices, pit­ting qual­ity against pric­ing, notes Michelakis Nikos at Kolympari SA Michelakis. To the con­sumer, every day you reduce the pur­chas­ing power. As a result, you turn to more indus­tri­al­ized and low-cost prod­ucts and leave the nat­ural prod­ucts that are very impor­tant for our health.”

Tunisian pro­ducer Ahmed Hamza agreed: We need to inno­vate and edu­cate to main­tain sus­tain­able high-qual­ity farm­ing meth­ods and advo­cate such behav­iours with farm­ers, exporters and con­sumers.”


San Miguel Olive Farm, California

The sit­u­a­tion has become nearly unten­able for some smaller farm­ers and dis­trib­u­tors who have been hit by the cas­cade of it all.

One, Mary Teeter, who pro­duces Il Bel Cuore in Italy and dis­trib­utes the brand in the U.S., had this to share:

We are fac­ing extremes in all weather con­di­tions these days. If it’s not a freeze when the olives are bud­ding, then the extreme wind, heat, cold or rain become the next obsta­cles we face.

Additionally, the abil­ity to obtain sup­plies such as card­board is another obsta­cle. There was no paper in Italy to make the card­board boxes we use to hold the cans.

Now, the prob­lem is ship­ping delays and find­ing avail­able space on a ves­sel com­ing to the U.S. We are los­ing sev­eral months on a con­sum­able prod­uct due to the short­ages and delays.

This could be the end of our lit­tle oper­a­tion. We sell directly to the con­sumer and we have a lot of vari­ables impact­ing our abil­ity to sus­tain our busi­ness.

We will per­se­vere through these times, just as these trees per­se­vere and grow through the most dif­fi­cult con­di­tions,” said Teeter.

But John Cancilla at Marqués de Valdueza held out with some opti­mism.

Political risk, cli­mate change, eco­nomic tur­moil and other fac­tors are impact­ing the olive oil indus­try, but these same fac­tors together with a grow­ing aware­ness of healthy eat­ing give rise to a num­ber of oppor­tu­ni­ties,” he said.

A rapid and mea­sured response to these exter­nal con­di­tions has been fun­da­men­tal to our con­tin­ued growth in these tur­bu­lent times. While cau­tious, we are excited about what the imme­di­ate future has in store for olive oil pro­duc­ers around the world.”

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