The bird’s eye view from the century-old-plus Beach Line Citrus farm in Niland in California’s Imperial County is a commanding vision of the azure waters in the Salton Sea several miles to the West and the towering Chocolate Mountains to the East.
Closer to the ground, a crop relatively new to this area is sinking its roots deeper into the low-desert landscape – super high density (SHD) plantings of olives grown for milling into extra virgin olive oil.
Beach Line Citrus LLC is among about a dozen entrepreneurial growers in Imperial County and neighboring Yuma County, Ariz., adding olives to their crop pedigree, or with plantings on the drawing boards.
The conventionally-grown commercial olive varieties at Beach Line Citrus include the Spanish varieties Arbequina and Arbosana, and the Greek Koroneiki olive.
In addition to olives, Beach Line Citrus grows about 2,000 acres of permanent crops, mostly desert lemons, along with figs, pomegranates, and other types of citrus.
The father-and-son team of Don Barioni Sr. and Doni Jr. (fifth-and-fourth-generation farmers respectively) and their partners – Bob Hull, Thom Curry, and others – has about 160 acres of olives.
The plantings include: a 40-acre trial planted five years ago with dozens of varieties; a 40-acre commercial parcel planted two years ago; and an 80-acre commercial block planted last year.
The average plant spacing for the orchards is 13-by-7 feet.
Organically-grown olives are planned in the future.
“We’re very excited about olives since olive oil is a product in high demand with consumers right now,” said Doni at his busy farm office in mid July.
The olive tree is native to the Mediterranean region and western Asia. Olive cultivation dates back about 7,000 years ago.
Barioni said, “If we can mechanically prune and harvest olives then this industry has great potential in the desert.”
Olive tree requirements
The olive trees at Beach Line Citrus consume 2-3 acre feet of water annually, delivered by surface-drip irrigation from the Colorado River. Water costs are about $20 per acre foot.
This compares to 5-6 acre feet per acre for lemons and many other locally-grown crops.
So far, no pest or disease threats have surfaced.
Barioni says it takes three to four years for olive plants to reach commercial production. He hopes for 3-5 ton-per-acre yields in the future.
The trees are grown on a single-wire-trellis system which Barioni refers to as “training wheels for olives.” Once the trees mature, the trellising will likely be removed.
Barioni is adding few nutrients for crop development, perhaps 2 percent to 5 percent of the total nitrogen used for major crops over a year. He may switch to an 11-8-3 N-P-K fertilizer mix with boron, applied at the flowering stage. Fertilization and cultivate are still a learning curve for the olive growers.
Vertical integration is crucial to the company’s overall olive venture. A large olive mill is scheduled to open this November about 30 miles to the south in a business park near the Imperial airport.
The mill will wash the olives and crush the fruit. Malaxers will massage the paste and release the oil.
The mill is a partnership between Beach Line Citrus, Imperial California Olive Mill, and Temecula Olive Oil Company. Temecula currently mills and sells oil generated from the farm’s olives and this will continue.
“The key to producing great extra virgin olive oil starts with good fruit,” said Thom Curry, general manager of the mill and the olive oil companies.
Also critical is quick delivery of just-harvested fruit to the mill, plus high quality processing equipment including stainless steel tanks.
Curry says olive oil is a fast-growing product with double-digit sale increases every year.
“Our goal is to produce 1 percent of the olive oil market,” Curry said.
Ninety-six percent of the nation’s olive crop is grown in California in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys. The top five olive-producing counties include San Joaquin, Glenn, Tehama, and Fresno, respectively.
According to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, California olive growers generated about $53 million in cash income in 2011.
UCCE olive field trial
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.
The Barkley experience
Just across the Colorado River in southwestern Arizona, the Barkley family has farmed in Yuma County since 1918. The Barkley Company of Arizona grows winter vegetables, wheat, barley, dates, sudangrass, alfalfa, and more recently, olives for oil.
The company’s 18 acres of SHD olives – the Arbosana, Arbequina, and Koroneiki varieties – were planted in 2009 on produce-quality ground in Somerton in the lower Yuma Valley. The Arbequina and Koroneiki varieties are spaced 5-by-12 feet. The Arbosana is planted 4-by-12.
The first commercial crop was harvested last fall with a rented mechanical harvester. The Arbosana yield was 3.5-tons-per-acre; 2-plus-tons-per-acre for the Arbequina and Koroneiki fruit.
“I think olives will be a good crop for us,” said Tim Thompson, Barkley’s special projects manager. “Olive trees are extremely adapted to this desert area.”
Barkley’s olives were pressed last fall at the Queen Creek Olive Mill in Queen Creek, located near Phoenix.
Barkley’s will take delivery of a mechanical olive harvester this year. In addition to harvesting their own olives, the machine will likely harvest olives in the Imperial Valley.
Barkley’s olive groves are irrigated via surface drip from the Colorado River. The orchards are flooded occasionally to push salts further down into the soil.
A key to olive production, all of the desert growers told Farm Press, is that olives can be grown in marginal soils. On the Barkley farm, future plantings will likely be on marginal ground.
“Keeping the olive trees dwarfed in the fast-growing desert environment with the extreme summer heat will be a challenge,” Thompson said.
Nationally, only about 1 percent of the olive oil consumed in the U.S. is actually grown in the U.S. These growers, and other farm entrepreneurs, hope to reduce this major home-grown olive oil deficit.
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