California Olive Oil Farmers Finding Machine Harvesting Fruitful

Feb 01, 2013 No Comments by

FRESNO, Calif. – The challenge facing olive growers in California is how to get table olives off the trees.  Unlike olive oil, table olives have to be harvested by hand rather than by mechanical means.  Newer orchards can have success with mechanical harvesting, but orchards existing for a longer period of time were not planted with that intent.

Mechanical techniques can actually damage these olive trees, said Alex Ott, executive director of the California Olive Committee, who also said the committee has invested heavily in research to find a mechanical harvester for table olives.

“The challenge we get into is how do you develop a mechanical harvesting technique that would be used on existing orchards,” Ott said.  “These trees are a lot taller and bigger and so forth.”

Kyle Sawatzky, part owner of Bari Olive Oil Company in Dinuba, said machine harvesting his orchards has kept his costs significantly down, allowing him to sell Bari’s olive oil in the low $20s rather than the low $30s.  The quality is also better, because the olives can be sent to the press faster, and if bruising occurs it won’t have an effect on the product because the olives will be ground up into a paste after being harvested.

“Machine harvesting has allowed us a lot of opportunities to be more price competitive and in some ways even produce a little bit better product,” Sawatzky said.

In 2012 Bari raked in $1 million in sales, and this year double that amount is expected because of the way the crop turned out.

“For the most part the quality was exceptional, the volume was greatly increased over last year,” Sawatzky said.  “Our production almost doubled this year over last year.”

Ott said California has two growing regions: Sacramento north and down south in the San Joaquin Valley.  The state is the home of two olive canners, which are also the only ones in the United States.  Known as an alternate bearing crop, the amount harvested can fluctuate greatly from year-to-year.  Just a few years ago orchards yielded 165,000 tons, and last year that number fell to just 23,000 tons.  This year, the number is projected to be 75,000 tons.

Ott said the southern region where olives are harvested had a poor showing of only one to two tons per acre, while the north produced as high as eight tons per acre.  A low labor force made it difficult to get the fruit off the trees in a timely manner.

“Those that had a crop this year did very well, the northern group, of course, doing a little bit better than the southern group,” Ott said.

Olive farmers who don’t want to deal with the tedious handpicking of the fruit anymore do have an option.  They can rip out the trees in favor of crops that can be easily mechanically harvested, such as almonds, walnuts and pistachios.  Olive and olive oil consumers mostly buy from foreign markets.  Foreign olives are grown differently than in the U.S., and there are also differences in terms of labor and production costs.  Incoming olives are checked to make sure they are adhering to U.S. standards, and olive oil is inspected to make sure it is extra virgin olive oil.

“The United States is the second largest consumer of olive oil in the world, and we produce approximately 2 percent of all the olive oil,” Ott said.  “So there’s a lot of foreign olive oil that comes in.”

Ott said when the U.S. ships to Europe there is a tariff of $1.57 per kilo, while the U.S. has a tariff of only 5 cents.  Europe also receives subsidies, whereas the U.S. does not.

Italy, Spain, and California all make quality olive oil, Ott said, and health benefits are the same in all extra virgin olive oil.  He sees more competition between the growing regions in the coming years.

“I think the olive oil industry is becoming the new wine industry,” Ott said.

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About the author

James Olinger is a native of the San Joaquin Valley. He graduated from West Hills College in Coalinga, California in 2000 with an associate's degree in liberal arts. He joined Business Street in 2004 as a staff writer, and became the associate editor in 2007. He maintains that position today, writing for Business Street Online in a variety of topics.
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