It is not surprising that any banner harvest year like 2010/2011 would be followed by a lighter crop. Even with advanced agricultural developments designed to lessen the alternate bearing nature of olive trees, most producers still find their orchards to behave in a traditional manner. Up and down California, the 2011/2012 harvest was expected to be light, but what is a surprise is the depth to which many areas are facing a dramatic drop in production.
With the harvest only a couple months away, most producers are starting to estimate upcoming yields. According to a number of producers, a biannual light crop expectation and unfavorable weather conditions played a significant role. A combination of late frost, heavy spring rains, cooler temperatures and high winds during bloom and fruit set all seem to be factors in crop reduction.
“While we are making no projections yet, we’ve received initial data from various regions and the response is mixed. Some areas, like the Central and Sacramento valleys appear to be on schedule for a light alternate bearing year production. We have heard reports, though, of very low crop estimates for the Central Coast. We are hoping that the additional 7,000 acres coming into production this year in California will offset the light areas,” said Patricia Darragh, Executive Director of the California Olive Oil Council.
Reports from the southern regions of San Diego and San Bernadino counties appear to match other areas. Glenn Foster, owner of San Felipe Olive Company in Yucaipa, owns a small 5-acre orchard of 700 trees and manages another 1200 for growers in the southern California area, including a mix of Tuscan field varietals, Koroneiki, Arbequina and Mission.
“In a nutshell, we had a bumper crop last year, so we didn’t expect much. But, this year, some of those orchards have no olives at all. We were impacted by a hard freeze in early April that froze a lot of flower buds and damaged new branch growth that would have produced buds. We were not affected by June rains and July thunderstorms because they occurred after the die had been cast. All in all, we expect a very thin year between low bearing and none. And I’m hearing similar conditions up and down California,” stated Foster.
Growers from the Central Coast region are reporting much the same scenario. However, moving up the coast and inland, some producers don’t think the season will be a total loss. Kyle Sawatzky of Bari Olive Oil in Dinuba, just south of Fresno, is one of the few growers sharing a positive outlook.
“We were lucky and had perfect bloom conditions, with temperatures in the low 80s and nice, sunny weather. I expect to average between 3-4 tons/acre this year. Between what we grow and contract out, our total acreage will cover about 350 acres, but it could go as high as 800. It helps that we concentrate on varietals less affected by alternate bearing yields, like Arbequina, Arbosana and Koroneiki. Growers we work with – from Merced to Lodi - expect yields pretty similar to our own estimates. So we’re enthusiastic about the harvest, but I’m starting to hear from producers in other regions looking for extra oil this year and that’s a sign that the rest of the state has not had it as good as we have,” said Sawatzky.
In Placerville, north of Sacramento, Richard Wolf of Winterhill Farms had a tempered approach to this season’s harvest. “My expectations for this year weren’t great because we completed a substantial pruning last year after a very solid harvest. We also got hit with a frost we knew would affect production early on. But other orchards that we manage in El Dorado County seem to be on track for reasonable yields. All in all, I’m not dancing in the streets about production this year. I know it’s going to be tough. If I was totally dependent on our orchards, I’d be pretty depressed. But, it’s been a weird agricultural year, all around,” reported Wolf.
Jeff Martin of Frantoio Grove in Gilroy was blunt about his own expectations. “Actually it’s going to be a horrible year. Bloom set looked good before June rains came and decimated the bloom. Only two percent of our trees have olives and of those, the crop looks very spotty. At this stage, orchard management becomes a decision of whether to continue cultural practices for the remainder of the season,” said Martin. “My trees look lovely, my olive oil for the first year crop was delicious, but I just have to hope that the new customer base we created last year will be willing to wait another year before getting more of Frantoio Grove’s extra virgin olive oil. It’s an awfully hard way to build the brand,” he added.
All the way up to Sonoma County, the story was repeated. Ridgely Evers of Davero in Sonoma said he expects zero crop. “Frankly, it’s a real problem for us because extra virgin olive oil is our flagship product, but we’ll get through it. We had almost four solid days of rain during bloom and it took out the entire crop. But, we know we’re not the only ones hurting from the weather conditions this year. It’s tough all over.”
As some producers acknowledged, the year is not over until it’s over, but at this stage, it looks like California’s olive oil crop for 2011/2012 will not be one for the record books. Most growers, though, understand the alternate bearing nature of the olive tree and accept that not every year bears fruit with abundance. Like many other agricultural endeavors, it’s another example of the fortitude that comes with being a farmer.