A decade of focused research, investment, and careful testing, both in the field with growers and with consumers, has borne successful fruit for California’s table olive growers this month. With a critical statewide shortage of hand harvest labor this fall, the timing couldn’t be better.

A broad coalition of growers, olive trade organizations, top USDA/ARS scientists, leading UC Davis agricultural scientists and leaders, gathered Oct. 10 -11, 2012, to observe an impressive demonstration of the first California commercial mechanical harvest of Manzanilla table olives. The event was organized by Dennis Burreson, grower, and Bill McFarland, president of the California Olive Association.

“This is a turning point for our industry. I foresee growth in table olive acreage because of this innovation,” said Michael Silveira, grower, and chairman of the California Olive Committee (Federal Marketing Order).

Two types of canopy shaking harvest machines were put to the test and both have yielded the necessary volume (75%-80%) of high-quality undamaged fruit, and cooperation and tolerance from the trees.

An informative talk by leading agriculture scholar, Dr. Louise Ferguson of UC Davis preceded the harvest demonstration. Dr. Ferguson has directed and supported the concept of mechanical harvest with years of active research and development.

“This is the future of California table olives”, said Adin Hester, President of the Olive Growers Council of California. “A mechanical harvester will increase profits and yield over time. We can see from the results that it will also maintain the same superior product our consumers expect and enjoy.”

Over fifty growers who attended were pleased with the condition of the olives and the trees – they walked the orchard, inspected the olives and trees as the mechanical harvester moved through the grove.

The table olive crop has lost an alarming amount of acreage (down to 25K, from 40K in the 1980s) in recent years to more profitable tree nut crops, in no small part driven by high costs and current shortages of labor for hand harvesting, as well as low returns per acre for growers. US and EU subsidizing of international table olive crops have further undercut California’s growers in an increasingly competitive market.

“If a tree crop is harvested by hand it will soon be grown offshore. It is imperative to adopt mechanical harvesting in order to keep these crops in California” said grower Dennis Burreson who hosted this olive summit and demonstration on his family’s ranch.

Numerous successful conversions

There are numerous California examples of successful conversions from hand to mechanical harvest including most nut crops, citrus, tomatoes, dates, figs, prunes, wine grapes, and olive oil olives.

Dan Flynn, Executive Director of the UC Davis Olive Center was impressed with both mechanical harvesters’ ability to harvest 120 trees per hour. “With some fine tuning and development of best practices, I can see growers getting excited about investing in new table olive orchards like they did with olive oil.”

For existing olive orchards the technology remains unproven, and with the younger trees there will be some necessary re-tooling. This may include refinement of practices such as the introduction of rigorous pruning of the younger orchards under 30 years old. Watering techniques, plant breeding choices, soil mineral content, and a host of variables will need careful consideration. Many relevant ideas were presented this week by visiting horticultural scholars.

Also in attendance was retiring District 2 Congressman Wally Herger, who has been an advocate for California growers. “Growers will need both state and federal support for research and development” added Adin Hester. “There is great potential here for the industry to prosper and offer premium domestic olives that will be globally competitive. At the same time it will build the agriculture economy of California.”

Prospective incentive programs may include specialty state block and crop grants, NIFA and Farm Bill opportunities.