Going into yet another season of growing table olives, Rod Burkett is not about to despair after seeing the industry struggle through three crop failures in four years.
“Now isn’t the time to push out olives,” the Tulare County, Calif., grower said at an industry workshop in Tulare. “If I had more land, I would be planting now.”
Burkett believes the shrinking acreage of California table olives puts growers in a place where they can make more money. “We’re at a dollar a can now,” he says.
There’s only about 22,000 acres of table olives left in the state, putting it well below such giants as almonds at more than 795,000 acres and even pomegranates at 29,000.
“Now that we’re making money, we need to start adding plant nutrients,” Burkett said, at both pre-bloom and post-harvest. These could include boron, zinc, urea, magnesium, and sulfur.
Burkett was among speakers who talked on a wide range of topics, including mechanically harvesting table olives, using parasitic wasps to control olive fruit fly and research efforts at the new University of California, Davis, Olive Center.
He emphasized the need to grow the larger olives that command the best prices, citing a pricing structure that showed growers of medium, large and extra large olives last year received $1,250 per ton. For small olives, the price was $650.
“If you want more money for the small olives, you’re not going to get it,” Burkett said. “The smart thing is don’t grow the damned things.”
Burkett took a page from the book of wine and concentrate negotiators who have cited the loss of available domestic grapes as processors reached overseas for product. He thinks processors of olives are rethinking that strategy as the domestic supply has dwindled and “it’s expensive to have them shipped here.”
Challenges that remain for table olive growers in California include the fact that the crop is “alternate bearing.” In addition, the need for hand labor in the harvest can be crippling.
In fact, UC pomologist Louise Ferguson has said, “Manual harvesting costs are going to kill the California table grape industry.
She has been working since 2006 with a number of engineers, plant physiologists, food scientists, the two major table olive processors in California, harvester fabricators, and others to find ways to make mechanical harvesting work.
At the Tulare conference, she had some good news: Even trained tasters at UC Davis couldn’t tell the difference between manually and mechanically harvested olives.
She also had some not so great news: Harvesters currently being used still fall short of the needed efficiency rate to make their use economically viable. An 80 percent efficiency rate is needed, and a trunk shaker was 64 percent efficient while a canopy contact harvesting head, which resembles a huge airbrush, was 68 percent efficient.
It may be necessary to alter tree shaping as well in order to make it easier for mechanical harvesters to do their thing. Ferguson is also looking at harvesters from abroad, including one for oil and table olives in Spain.
Dennis Burreson, chairman of the California Olive Committee, and director of field operations for Musco Family Olive Co. in Tracy, recently planted 120 acres of table olives in high-density hedgerows Ferguson helped design, a million dollar investment.
Some are drawing parallels to what happened to the state’s processing tomato industry in the 1960s, when two UC inventions – a mechanical tomato harvester and the varieties bred to suit it – came to the rescue of an industry plagued by labor shortages.
The machines cut harvesting costs dramatically and led to large increases in tomato acreage and tonnage.
Other topics discussed at the Tulare workshop included:
• Olive psyllid, a pest that first appeared in California in July 2007 and has been found in three counties – San Diego, Orange and Riverside. Marshall Johnson, an integrated pest management specialist and research entomologist with the Kearney Agricultural Center, said the pest leaves a cotton-candy like residue on host plants including the olive, Russian olive and mock privet. He believes it achieves optimum growth between 68 F and 77 F and is not likely to thrive in the heat of the San Joaquin Valley, though it has been detected in Temecula, which experiences high temperatures. The pest thrives in shade, and Johnson advises “opening up trees to help knock the psyllid back.”
• Wasps that can be used for biocontrol of the olive fruit fly. Vicki Yokoyama, an entomologist with the Agricultural Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Parlier, said imported Guatemalan wasps have proved effective in parasitizing larvae of the fruit fly. Another species of the wasps can be used to attack eggs, but care is being taken that any wasps released will not damage beneficial insects that attack such invasive nuisances as the yellow star thistle.
• Olive knot, a problem than can be exacerbated by this year’s heavy rainfall. Elizabeth Fichtner, UC farm adviser for Tulare County, said olive knot is caused by a bacterium and can girdle and kill infected twigs and branches. The bacterium enters the host through wounds and leaf scars. Sanitation and copper sprays are used to manage the problem, including removal of galled tissue from trees. Pruning during the dry season (July-August) reduces the likelihood of promoting new infections, Fichtner said.
• Training of USDA inspectors of imported olives. The UC Davis Olive Center will have a hand in that in June, said Dan Flynn, the center’s executive director. In time, he said, the industry would like to develop a chemical analysis for olives that could be used to more objectively look at the product. The center’s projects also include looking at how to extract oil out of the wastewater of the black ripe processing of table olives, a new food processing facility, a chemical laboratory, and surveying of super high density planting of olives for oil.
• Development of an industry-wide California olive handbook listing resources for growers. Adin Hester, president of the Olive Growers Council, said the handbook is a work in progress. He said he is pleased by plans to train 20-25 USDA inspectors of ripe olives entering the country and would like to see a more objective way of determining quality. Hester is glad that Danitrol has been approved for mitigation of olive fruit fly and said efforts are under way to develop a new risk management vehicle for olive growers that could provide catastrophic insurance at up to 75 percent coverage.