This spring, the University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) launched an olive research trial at its Desert Research and Extension Center in El Centro in Imperial County. Two-and-a-half acres of high density ‘table olives’ and olives for oil were planted. UCCE will double the acreage this fall.

Spacings include 12-by-18 feet for table olives; 4-by-12 and 8-by-12 for olives for oil.

The table varieties include Mission, Sevillano, and Manzanillo. The oil varieties are Arbosana, Arbequina, and Koroneiki.

The plants were supplied by Christian Lydick of the Imperial Valley Olives nursery in Holtville. Lydick plans to enter commercial olive production in the future.

Khaled Bali, UCCE county director, Imperial County, leads the UC olive trial. A native of Jordan, Bali is familiar with olive production in a desert environment, as olives are a major desert-crop in his native country.

Bali believes olives are a good crop fit for agriculture in the California low desert.

“Olives can grow in just about any soil in the Imperial Valley,” Bali said.

About two thirds of valley soils are heavy clay with the balance sandier-type soils.

Bali is also an irrigation and water management farm advisor. He says the water-use average for crops grown in Imperial County averages about 6.1 acre feet per acre. An acre foot is 12 inches of water.

With tightening water supplies in California, Bali says olives can be grown in the desert for about half the water of other crops – about 3.1 acre-feet annually.

Another plus of olive production is trees are highly tolerant to salt. Bali says olives could be successfully grown in the valley with water with five times the saline content in Colorado River water.

Imperial County has about 500,000 acres of irrigated agriculture.

One good cropping option for olives, Bali says, is to grow olives between alfalfa fields. About 130,000 acres of alfalfa (2011 figure) are grown in Imperial County.