California table olive growers are gearing up for what is being termed a modest crop in the Central Valley and a strong crop in the north.

“Up there, it’s a limb buster in Tehama and Glenn counties, with trees drooping,” said Adin Hester, president and chief executive officer of the Olive Growers Council in Visalia.

Hester, who cited some adverse weather conditions in the Valley during fruit set, was among those who spoke during the 6th Annual Central Valley Olive Day in Exeter. He and others cautioned growers not to “panic” and take on harvesting crews at inflated prices early, despite an expected labor shortage.

Those at the Exeter gathering also heard from speakers on topics that included research into alternate bearing in olives that results in larger and smaller crops, use of solar power, efforts by the University of California Davis Olive Center to boost standards, a pilot crop insurance program and farm crime.

And Dennis Burreson, chairman of the California Olive Committee’s Research Committee, gave his assessment of successes, setbacks and the status of nearly a dozen projects.

“We’ve had one outrageous success,” said Burreson, director of field operations for the Musco Family Olive Co. in Orland, pointing to control of the olive fruit fly.

“Ten years ago, when the olive fly came out of the Los Angeles area, we as an industry were in total panic, and we reached out to researchers,” he said. “We found it was a single host pest. What could we do? Today it is a manageable situation.”

Spraying with Spinosad has helped keep the fly in check, Burreson said. But there’s concern other materials, such as Danitol may be needed as well for better containment.

Burreson said, thanks to research, the industry is doing better at identifying verticillium wilt. But it needs to get a better handle on olive knot disease, he said, and “the jury is still out” when it comes to mechanical harvesting of table olives.

Several speakers noted that the table olive industry’s survivability depends on whether it can adopt mechanized harvesting. And Burreson noted it is being used elsewhere, in Spain and Argentina.

Growers in other countries are willing, he said, to accept harvest efficiencies in the 60 percent range, while California growers have a standard of 80 percent or more. Two harvesting technologies — trunk shaking and canopy contact — average less than 67 percent efficiency.

And producers in some other countries accept “barking,” but those in California do not, Burreson said.

Although some research will continue on mechanical harvesting and Burreson has 100 acres set aside for that purpose, he said this marks the final year of a committee project on mechanization funded at $55,500.

Hand-harvesting costs

That’s a source of some frustration for Louise Ferguson, a University of California Extension specialist who has spearheaded much of the research on mechanization. In an interview, she pointed to successes in research that showed limited canopy or trunk damage and production of fruit that passed muster in taste tests.

“It’s a source of frustration to be so close,” Ferguson said, “but the average olive grower doesn’t want to budge.”

Because most olive growers have diversified operations, she said, they may not know “what part of the operation is eroding their capital. Hand-harvesting costs are driving this industry into the ground.”

Ferguson said the industry’s attention to thwarting the olive fruit fly diverted some of their attention and resources away from coming up with “turnkey machines” that could be used for harvesting in the orchards.

She’s convinced that it will be necessary for growers to “change the trees and the machinery at the same time,” to use pruning and shaping of trees along with the machinery that shakes olives from the trees.

Ferguson also believes mechanical pruning can be used to help address the issue of alternate bearing in olives.

The Exeter meeting opened with Elizabeth Fichtner, UC Extension specialist on olives for Tulare County, talking about research aimed at better understanding alternate bearing in olives.

Fichtner and Carol Lovatt, professor of plant physiology at UC Riverside, are doing a research project that looks at the effect of shoot growth and whether use of plant growth regulators could address the alternate bearing issue.

“Alternate bearing makes it hard to manage budgets,” Fichtner said.

She said the problem may be exacerbated by lack of harvesting in an off-year when growers simply leave olives on the trees because there are so few and picking is costly.

The study also looks at what has been done to mitigate alternate bearing in citrus and avocado and to see if that may work in olives.

Solar projects

The meeting also included a presentation on solar projects from Cenergy Power with offices in Merced and Carlsbad. CEO Bill Pham said that even though state and local incentives for solar “are going away, it still pencils out” in terms of cost, given rising utility costs.

Federal tax incentives remain in place, he said, at 30 percent. To get the tax credit, the individual or entity must be taxable and must own the system.

For a database on incentives, he referred meeting participants to http://www.dsireusa.org/. Another resource is the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA).

Pham said net metering, the ability to get a full retail rate credit for solar generation, has been a key to his company’s projects in agricultural industries that include nut processing and cold storage.

Dan Flynn, executive director of the UC Davis Olive Center, talked of continuing challenges to the California olive industry from European Union subsidies to foreign growers, poor quality imports flooding the U.S. and the fact other crops may be more profitable.

He said efforts are underway to create a searchable data base on olive research to be posted on the Web and said a research director has been added to “bring chemistry” into the evaluation of product standards.

Growers also heard from representatives of the Tulare County District Attorney’s Office, who recommended marking equipment with owner applied numbers and keeping an eye out for suspicious activity.

Representatives of Fleishman Hillard Communications in Sacramento talked of efforts to target “moms” for the sale of olives in stores and an environmental impact report that shows annual spending by olive growers creates more than $493.6 million in overall business activity in California, a ripple effect that creates more than 3,555 jobs each year and payment of $14.7 million in business taxes.

The price schedule for California table olives was set in late August. It shows Manzanillo olives selling at $1,250 for medium, large and extra large sizes, $650 for small and $400 for petite. For the Sevillano variety, it is $1,150 for the super colossal, colossal and jumbo, $350 for the extra large “C” and $300 for the extra large “L.”