EXETER, Calif. — Central Valley table olive farmers must wait in long lines at the Musco Family Olive Co. receiving plant in Exeter, Calif., but few are complaining.
They are relieved they have a buyer for this year’s harvest.
Many vividly remember receiving news last spring from Bell-Carter Foods Inc. that it had canceled almost all contracts with California olive farmers.
Tulare County olive farmer John Werner remembers that evening all too well.
“On the evening of Monday, March 4th, I started getting some troubling phone calls and text messages. The first was from the labor contractor I use to prune olive trees in the spring and harvest in the fall. He asked me if I had heard anything about Bell-Carter canceling contracts to buy fruit from growers,” recalled Werner. “He said he was actually in an olive orchard that day with a crew pruning when the grower came out said, ‘Stop work. We are done.’ The grower had just gone to get his mail and had a contract cancellation notice from Bell-Carter.”
Bell-Carter had opted instead to purchase olives from Dcoop, a Spanish olive grower that last year bought an interest in Bell-Carter Foods Inc. Using a loophole in the U.S. tariff agreement they were able to avoid the 35.7% duty by importing the olives semi-cured and finishing the process in the U.S.
An estimated 4,500 acres, or 63 million pounds of olives, in Tulare County were impacted by the cancellation of contracts. Estimates of a $40 million loss to the olive industry in Tulare County, or approximately 60% of the industry had farmers losing sleep.
Farm labor contractors were among the hardest hit when the original Bell-Carter news broke. Pruners, harvesters, transporters were all suddenly out of work.
That is when Musco Family Olive Co., the number one branded olive company in the U.S. and the largest packer of ripe olives in the world, announced that it would not be purchasing olives from Spain, but instead would be picking up a percentage of almost all of the Bell-Carter canceled contracts. Musco knew that to sustain the Central Valley olive industry it needed to step in and offered contracts to almost every grower canceled by Bell-Carter. The contracts were only for a percentage of the crop, but enough to keep farmers going.
The additional news the first week of October of a U.S. 25% tariff on table olives from Spain and France also gave growers hope.
“If the protection can hold fast, I will be keeping my trees in the ground. I start picking the week of October 7th and I am contracted with Musco for 3 tons per acre. That is about 40% of the crop sitting in my trees,” said Werner. “If the protections stay, that contract should be good for 100% at a good rate, but only time will tell. It has been a really hard decade on California’s olive farmers.”
Olive trees have alternate-bearing years, producing an abundance of fruit every other year. Last year was a light year so growers were hoping to make up for that with additional profits this year prior to getting their contracts canceled.
“From drought, to no water allocations, to tighter California regulations, to regular market stress, California’s olive growers have really been beat up bad,” he said. “Any one of those things listed are survivable. It is the culmination of them that has led to the perfect storm.”