Olive growers optimistic despite setbacks

Tim Hearden/Capital Press University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor Bill Krueger, right, helps farmer Jeff Aguiar determine whether he should thin his olive trees to get a larger fruit.

Growers ponder thinning; prices should be stable

By TIM HEARDEN

Capital Press

ORLAND, Calif. -- Olive growers in California are optimistic about this year's crop despite a freeze that damaged some trees and a late bloom.

Growers are pondering whether to thin their trees to get larger fruit after a cool and wet spring pushed the blossom back a couple of weeks.

The cool conditions followed freezing temperatures in early December that damaged as many as 20 percent of Manzanillo olive plantings, said Bill Krueger, a University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor here.

The freeze also harmed the Koreneiki and Arbosana varieties used for oil, he said.

However, growers are holding out hope that this year's yield will stop a bitter streak for California's olive industry, which has suffered three failed crops in four years.

"The bloom certainly went really slow because it was spread out," Krueger said. "Some blooms opened two weeks before other blooms on the same tree. But from what I've seen now, it looks like it's going to set OK."

At Aguiar Ranch in Orland, Jim and Jeff Aguiar have 150 acres of Manzanillos and 150 acres of Sevillanos.

"The freeze back in December hurt probably 20 percent of our Manzanillo crop," Jeff Aguiar said. "It's going to be two or three years before we get that back to normal."

But overall, the crop is "a little on the heavy side," prices should be stable and there's more of an available work force now than when the economy is booming, Aguiar said.

"This year should be good for everybody -- the canners and the growers as well as the pickers and the truckers," he said.

Many olive growers in California had trouble making ends meet last year despite getting the highest prices for table olives in the industry's history. Growers picked only about 50,000 tons of usable olives -- about half the normal crop of 100,000 tons that was anticipated before untimely weather conditions spoiled the crop.

California produces nearly all of the nation's commercial table olives, but unfavorable conditions in three of the last four years have caused some farmers to reduce their orchards or get out of the business. Today the state has only about 22,000 "good producing acres" of olives, down from as many as 38,000 a decade ago, said Adin Hester, president of the Olive Growers Council of California in Visalia.

But Hester, too, is seeing an abundance of budding fruit on trees, he said. The only question now is whether to thin the trees, which is typically done with naphthaleneacetic acid, or let all the fruit grow.

"Overall it looks like it's going to be a pretty good to excellent crop this year," Hester said. "We really need it, too."

Online

Olive Growers Council of California: http://www.olivecouncil.com/

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