California faces olive oil shortages

Global Business

California’s vast landscape means it’s an ideal place for farming. From avocados to lemons to grapes for wine, the beautiful weather lends itself perfectly to agriculture.

But that weather’s also causing problems for the olive oil industry.

CGTN’s Phil Lavelle reports.

An unusual, short heatwave earlier this year during the winter months sent trees into budding mode and confused them to the extent that this year’s harvest is now expected to be down, with estimates of a drop between 25 percent and 35 percent of normal yields. 

“A good amount would be ten tons and this year we’ll probably be down much less than that,” olive grower Jerry Shaffer said. He and his wife Carolyn run a small olive farm and bottling plant called Fandango in Paso Robles in Central California.

“This year, we’re down maybe a third from last year,” he added.

Olive trees are alternate bearing. It means that a good harvest one year tends to be followed by a not-so-good harvest the following year. The problem farmers have is that last year’s harvest yielded a bumper crop. So, they were always expecting this year to be a little poorer. The bad weather has only exacerbated the situation. 

“We had a cold spell, then a heat spell. Much warmer than normal winter weather. The trees thought it was springtime, so they started to bud out and some were even flowering. And then right behind it, the cold weather came back in, typical weather in winter. And then everything that was on the trees fell off and so we have areas in this orchard that are spotty and don’t have any olives,” Jerry said.

California has more than 400 olive growers and they produce some 75 different olive varieties, according to the California Olive Oil Council. Around four million gallons of oil were produced in the state in 2017, up from 3.5 million the year before.

Jerry’s farm is relatively small, which means he’s in a less precarious position than others. “Most of the small growers are not 100 percent dependent on the income like the large growers, that’s their main business,” he said.

The small growers were also able to make adjustments, added Carolyn, who looks after the company’s marketing and distribution:

“We knew early on because of the weather that we had the first quarter that we had to do some farming things to mitigate that so we started our deficit watering, which is where you withhold the water, from the trees because you want to plump up the olives and you want to get more oil that way. So we were able to do that. The weather patterns, while it was a surprise when they happened, it wasn’t a surprise that we couldn’t mitigate. What we will do, we won’t take on as many bulk sales as we did this past year because we had some very loyal customers and they expect to get our olive oil all year round and we wanna keep them happy, so we’ll do that.”