Upswing follows growing demand, cheaper harvest
By TIM HEARDEN
If you see a grove of short, densely planted olive trees in California, chances are they're part of an olive oil boomlet.
While the table olive industry has struggled, the acreage of the fruit grown for oil has increased dramatically in the past five years. A majority of the state's roughly 20,000 acres of oil-producing trees have gone in during that period, said Bill Krueger, a University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor in Orland.
The boom, he said, is fueled by skyrocketing demand for olive oil among health-conscious consumers, the ability to use lower-cost harvesting methods and the fact that the trees require less water than other crops.
"If you look at the figures over the last 10 years, consumption in the United States has gone from 30 million gallons to somewhere around 73 million," said Jeffers Richardson, sales and marketing manager for NursTech, a Gridley, Calif.-based supplier of propagated olive plants.
"Part of that is due to the health benefits of oil, the antioxidant content of the oil," he said. "For some of us it's the flavor, but I think that one a lot of people are still learning about."
More than 99 percent of the olive oil consumed in the United States is imported, Richardson said. Most of the domestic product is from California, although olive plantings for oil can be found in Oregon's Willamette Valley and Medford area as well as in Georgia and Texas, he said.
Oil olives in California are typically grown in the "super-high density" plantings of as many as 780 trees per acre -- about three times as many as in traditional orchards, Krueger said. The trees are no taller than about 8 feet, and the mechanical harvests are very similar to those done with grapes, he said.
Brandon Flynn, general manager of oil-producing Pacific Farms in Gerber, Calif., said his orchards' yield suffered this year because of unfavorable weather conditions, but the business hasn't had trouble making ends meet.
The major headache has been that olives the plant typically gets from other orchards hasn't been available, he said.
"The fruit we've been receiving in the past went to the cannery this year," he said. "It's just more of a struggle to get it."
Krueger wonders how long the olive oil boom will last before a glut of olive oil makes the price too low to cover growers' cost. There's also stiff competition, mainly from producers in Spain and Italy, who consider the United States to be "their market," he said.
But Richardson isn't concerned that the market will hit a ceiling anytime soon. NursTech is the California arm of the multinational Agromillora, which was a pioneer in developing the super-high-density planting method, and the company last week announced it had added two more local nurseries to its list of customers in California.
"We really think that California has great potential," he said. "For one, we're playing to a domestic market. ... We have an ideal climate for it, a Mediterranean climate. From a real estate point of view, land prices are relatively low here compared to Europe and elsewhere. and it's easily expandable.
"We have a long way to go" in claiming market share, he said. "If we were to double (production) and go up to 1 percent (of the world's supply), we'd make great leaps and bounds."
California Olive Oil Council: www.cooc.com