By Caroline J. Beck May 19, 2008
Part I: Early Indications
As olive trees across California came into bloom the first week of May, a few variables pointed to mixed projections about the total volume the industry can expect for the fall harvest of 2008. Up and down the coast, most small and mid-sized oil producers reported heavy bloom and were optimistic that this year may produce a bumper crop. Even California Olive Oil Council Executive Director, Patty Darragh said there is every indication that California extra virgin olive oil production will surpass 750,000 gallons this year. In doing so, California will jump ahead of France’s expected production levels on the worldwide scale for the first time. Heavy bloom can usually be a strong indication of a bumper crop, but not always. Dewey Lucero, owner of Lucero Olive Oil who manages over 500 acres of olives including orchards in Tehama and Butte counties and as far south as Sacramento, was reservedly optimistic. ”To be honest, it’s hard to tell this early in the year. Sometimes, a great bud start doesn’t result in heavy fruit and sometimes we’ll have a year with fewer buds, but everything turns to fruit,” said Lucero. “My grandpa who has been farming olives for over 60 years has always said, ‘We just won’t know (what the harvest will bring) until July’,” he added.
Paul Vossen, of UC Davis, reported that the freeze this year in the northern counties was very minor and will not appear to have any affect on volume. Vossen also shared the point-of-view that it will be difficult to judge total crop potential until mid-June.
He echoed comments received from Adin Hester of the Olive Growers Council of California, who remarked, “The answer in a nutshell is there are still too many variables. Factors like poor pollination; or excessive heat could result in a June drop.” For many of the largest producers, the pattern of smaller crops in alternate years point to a light crop for the ’08-’09 harvest year. Hester said, “All told, we anticipate the crop to be down a little bit, or 75-85% of total tonnage from the heavy production of the ’07-’08 season.”
Of all the growers we spoke with, Shari De Young, orchard manager for McEvoy Ranch in Sonoma County, near Petaluma, reported the latest start to the season. “We’re only just beginning to get bloom, which is slightly later than some previous years. Although we are in a more coastal region than many olive growers, this was a particularly cold year for us. The full bloom is probably two weeks off and will finish by the end of May, if it stays hot,” she said.
Edie Kausch of Ink Grade Farm, a smaller Northern California producer who recently won a Double Gold medal at the Las Vegas International Restaurant Show for Ink Grade’s Italian Blend reported similar expectations. “We are in Pope Valley – just in the eastern hills of the Napa Valley, almost 1600 feet up.” Kausch went on to explain “Because we are at a higher elevation, we get our bud break three weeks later than the valley floor. We are very fortunate that we are just now getting bloom. The early frost didn’t hit us at all.” At the other end of the geographic spectrum in Southern California, Tom Curry of the Temecula Olive Oil company reported that early weather conditions favored a strong year. “We have had some good rain here, down only %5 from normal levels,” Curry said. “Right now, there appears to be lots of flowers. We are in an area that is also blessed with no freeze, so that’s never been an issue for us. All in all, it looks like we should have a pretty strong year.”
Moving to the Central region – represented by highly varied microclimatic zones – the reports are much the same. Whether coastal or inland, Central Coast growers report strong flowering and bud break, albeit slightly behind the typical growing season calendar. “Our trees have lots of flowers, although no trace of fruit yet. Some trees in the little valley in our orchard were clearly affected by the frost, but others are loaded. It looks like we are a little behind, time-wise, compared to previous years,” reported Antoinette Addison of Figueroa Farms in the Santa Ynez valley.
Peter Bell, a grower in the same region has witnessed a similar strong start to the growing season, but has concerns about the potential effect of high winds, especially at this time of year. Feedback from Robbie Robbins of the Robbins Family Farm summed up the sentiment shared by most growers we interviewed. While surveying the orchard, he said, “The crop looks like it could be huge. Although we also have wind here, it could be our biggest year ever. In another month or so, we should know what will hold. It’s incredible. I’ve never seen as many flowers as we have right now.”
Part II of this report will be issued later in the season when the variables described by the growers are narrowed. At this time, however, all reports indicate a very strong year for California olive oil.
Caroline J. Beck is a food and wine writer and a columnist for the Santa Ynez Valley Journal. She divides her time between California and the shores of Lake Huron in Michigan. She began her career in strategic marketing for companies such as Apple Computer and Microsoft and went on to head up entrepreneurial adventures in the entertainment business for Sony. Her most recent past life included an olive ranch and a thriving business in olive oil and specialty foods. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.