It’s a good time to think big when it comes to growing table olives in California, and fewer trees this year are going into the ground in the state to produce olive oil.

But production of olive oil in California is expected to nearly double over the next few years. And both industries have a common enemy — imports of questionable quality.

Those were among observations at a University of California program in Tulare where participants also heard the latest on mechanical harvesting, olive knot and verticillium management and use of olive mill waste water for nutrition and for management of olive diseases and insect pests.

“There are three easy answers to an inventory that’s out of balance: Big fruit, big fruit, big fruit,” said Adin Hester, president of the Olive Grower’s Council of California in Visalia.

Hester opened the program with a look at the black olive industry in California and a continuing decline in acreage: He said it’s now at “25,000 acres, maybe less. S&J Ranch, for example, has cut 750 acres and gone from being a major grower to a small one.”

But this is an “on” year for the olive industry in which fruit production alternates between large crops in an “on” year often consisting of smaller, lower value fruit and smaller crops consisting of larger, higher value fruit.

(For more, see: Large olive crop may benefit from chemical thinning)

A strong example of that is last year’s crop of almost 27,000 tons compared to the year before when the tonnage was nearly 165,000. Hester said nearly half of that 2010 crop was smaller sizes, and he described production in four of the past six years as “crop failures.”

Hester said the industry remains threatened by imports, particularly in the food service arena “where consumers don’t have a choice.” His point: Given a choice in the supermarket, the consumer may decide to bypass the imports.

The state’s olive oil industry shares the import pain. Olive oil producers in California last year accounted for 1.5 percent of the olive oil consumed in the United States, said Dan Flynn, executive director of the UC Davis Olive Center. The state’s production was 1.2 million gallons, he said, compared to 78 million gallons that was imported into the country.

Flynn said the rush to plant trees for oil has slowed: “There’s not much going into the ground this year.” But production continues to climb, he said, with the expectation that this year’s production will total 2.5 million gallons, and that California production will hit 5 million within the next three to four years.

Flynn said the producers of oil and table olives share the threats from lower quality imports, along with subsidized competition. In addition to subsidies within competing countries, he said, there is also some U.S. support for competitors. He cited an example of aid to Morocco.

Flynn said the Davis center is pairing a chemist at the UC campus with a plant scientist to look at the chemistry of olives and do research on data that could show quality differences. He said chemical methods of analyzing quality “can help enforcers of standards make sure that bad quality [fruit or oil] is not making it to the market.” That could help U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors.

The Davis center is also working to educate buyers, including outreach to the Culinary Institute of America to share information on virgin olive oil and oil from abroad that may be adulterated.