By Caroline J. Beck August 06, 2008
Part II: Mid-season Estimates
As the 2008 growing season moves past “fruit set” stage, a mid-year review with California olive growers and industry experts reveals unusual weather events will only marginally impact total production this year. The late April cold snap, an unseasonably early heat wave in May and strong winds in many areas were consistent topics of conversation among growers. And while devastating fires of North Central California dominated the news media for many weeks, their effect on the State’s olive crop was contained to a relatively narrow area.
On the heels of these conditions, earlier reports of a bumper crop are now tempered. Current industry projections point to a healthy year, but not an extraordinary one. California Olive Oil Council Executive Director, Patty Darragh maintained their projection of 750,000 gallons, while acknowledging it is probably not going to be a banner year. “From what I’ve heard, things are still on target for our projections, but there is a concern about Butte County because of the fires,” said Darragh. “Statewide, the number of young trees just coming into maturity and their heavier bearing years should balance things out.”
A conversation with Alan Greene, Vice President Business Development for California Olive Ranch, mirrored Darragh’s assessment. As the largest grower in California dedicated to the production of olive oil, the 700-acre ranch of over 300,000 trees is farmed in a “super high density” pattern. Greene acknowledged that weather events were a factor this year, but not significantly. “The April freeze and hot winds during bloom took their toll, more so for the later-blooming Arbequina than Arbosana or Koroneiki, but I think we will come in better than 80% of potential,” reported Greene. “Our volume pretty much doubles ever year as a factor of new plantings and existing orchards maturing into production. From what we’ve heard, traditional olive varieties got tagged more so than Super High Density. The effects of the weather seem to be variety-specific,” explained Greene.
Adin Hester, President of the California Olive Growers Council, reports that his organization is estimating a production volume of some 65,000 tons for table olives. The same three weather-related issues were cause for a reduction in crop size. “In the spring, a late frost caused some damage to the buds. In late April at the time of full bloom, four days of hot weather with temperatures rising to over 100 degrees undoubtedly caused the heaviest damage,” Hester reported. “Growers who had a strong, healthy spring bloom and were looking forward to a good crop, suddenly went from good to marginal. There is no question that the heat heavily damaged and reduced the potential ’08 crop, as high temperatures cooked the pollen,” he said.
In the areas hardest hit by the June fires, two growers we spoke to really felt the heat. Lewis Johnson, of Butte View Olive Oil Company, reported some loss of trees to fire and damage to fruit set, but concluded things could have been worse. “It’s hard to tell if the heavy smoke has had an effect or not. We had almost a full month of no sunlight. While we only lost about 40 trees in one block, neighboring orchards were hit pretty hard,” said Johnson. Additionally, Johnson had his share of the effects of other weather conditions. “Some blocks were damaged with cold weather and hot North winds really hammered the rest of it, but this is a light-bearing year”, Johnson reported. In the adjacent Yuba County, Steve Dambeck of Apollo Olive Oil reported little evidence that the fires had any direct impact on the upcoming production. “Bloom was extremely profuse this year. While it’s still a little hard to tell, the set looks to be medium. There was a huge amount of smoke. It’s hard to judge the effect when this kind of unusual event occurs,” said Dambeck.
Charles Crohare of Olivina in Livermore reported that his good fortune this year has been tied to the location of his 70-acre orchard. “Luckily, we were free of both the frost and the fire. We are not at the base of the valley, up at an elevation not affected as much by the temperature swings,” said Crohare. “We are optimistically projecting a 10% reduction from last year, but this is our light bearing year, so it is to be expected,” he said.
Yvonne Hall of Terra Savia in Mendocino county points to early frost as a bigger fear in their operations. Their nursery in Hopland was hard hit by the cold snap. Because they also offer oil milling services, Terra Savia is getting ad hoc reports from their own customers that it may be a lighter year. “This year’s huge blooms can be deceiving. Until you get the stuff in the bins, you can’t really judge. We service growers in the Anderson valley that worry every year about frost before harvest, not usually frost before fruit set,” said Hall.
Further down the coast, Joshua Yaguda of Pasolivo in Paso Robles, reported the most optimistic outlook. “For whatever reason, we seem to be on an alternate cycle from most folks we’ve talked to. This year, we expect a real bumper crop and although we experienced serious winds during late bloom, we already had fruit set that has held on,” said Yaguda.
“Partly because of very heavy pruning last year, the trees have a lot of energy and seem to be excited to be back in business,” Yaguda reported. He also remarked on a new bee keeping program at the farm that may be a factor. “Last year, we invited a local bee keeping company to set up in the orchard. The increased pollination activity may be one of the reasons we’re seeing such a heavy fruit set. It’s hard to quantify because we are coming back from heavy trimming, but we’re optimistic that it played a positive role,” explained Yaguda.
A smaller producer in the same Paso Robles area, Hank Anderson, of Valhalla Olive Orchard, shared Yaguda’s optimistic outlook. He expects their Arbequina variety to bear very heavy this year, but reported that the hotter temperatures in early spring required diligent watering to move from heavy bloom to solid fruit set.
In the Santa Ynez valley, Gus Sousoures of Olive Hill Farm produces olive oil made exclusively with Lucca olives. Sousoures reported that while he agrees with the impact of weather-related factors, his choice to plant the Lucca varietal has as much to do with the consistent volume he experiences as anything. “Although we had similar conditions: early frost, short hot spell in late bloom, Lucca tends to be a more consistent producer. It doesn’t bear heavy and light. And while this year’s fruit set is less than we expected because of the heavy bloom, all in all, it looks good,” said Sousoures.
The mid-year report provides further evidence that making projections in this business is never a sure thing. But Lewis Johnson of Butte View Olive Oil Company probably said it best. “You get what Mother Nature gives you. And go from there, said Johnson.