Cost of hand-picking drives growers to look into wide spacing

By TIM HEARDEN

Capital Press

The fate of the U.S. domestic table olive industry could hinge on a new harvesting technique being tried in California's Sacramento Valley.

University of California researchers nine years ago planted trees widely enough apart for mechanical harvesters to fit into the orchards, and they're bringing olives in at a fraction of a cost of the normal hand-picking method.

That could offer a ray of hope to beleaguered growers who just suffered their third failed crop in four years. California -- which accounts for nearly all the nation's table olives -- produced about 25,000 tons of olives this year, less than half of earlier estimates, according to the Olive Growers Council of California.

The unfavorable conditions have pushed some table olive growers out of business while olive oil operations -- which routinely pick their fruit mechanically -- have thrived.

"The cost (of hand-picking) is getting to be exorbitant, and we're in a worldwide marketplace competing with countries with much lower labor costs," said Bill Krueger, a UC Cooperative Extension farm advisor in Orland, Calif.

"We're also in a situation where three of the last four years in California have been light crops, so that's definitely a concern," he said.

Table olive growers have traditionally picked by hand to avoid damage to fruit. But UC-Davis experts estimate that hand-picking costs about $400 per ton, or about $2,000 an acre in a yield of 5 tons per acre, Krueger said.

By contrast, mechanical thinning in the same orchard costs about $400 per acre, one-fifth of the cost of hand-picking, Krueger said.

The cooperative extension has a test plot in Arbuckle, Calif., where it has been working with trunk-shakers and canopy-shakers to harvest its plantings of table olives.

It's too early to tell how this year's yield compared with other orchards, but last year's 5 tons per acre was comparable to the yield from hand-picked orchards, Krueger said.

California now has about 26,000 acres of olives, down from as many as 38,000 a decade ago, said Adin Hester, president of the Olive Growers Council in Visalia. The reduced acreage has raised fears that processors will go offshore to buy fresh olives preserved in brine, Hester has said.

However, Krueger knows of 800 acres of olives that will be planted in the coming year using the hedgerow configuration that will accommodate mechanical thinning.

Hester said he doesn't believe that acreage alone will make a significant difference, but it could be a wave of the future.

"Hopefully if we keep getting good research information, certain growers may get motivated to try and plant higher-density trees and engineer them for mechanical harvests," Hester said. "I think that might be our hope for the future."

Staff writer Tim Hearden is based in Shasta Lake, Calif. E-mail: thearden@capitalpress.com .

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