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Grim Reaping in Olives

Bad weather has decimated California crops. Prices for the canned table fruit are likely to rise, though oil production will not be as hard hit.

September 14, 2006|Jerry Hirsch | Times Staff Writer

If you ask anyone in the table olive industry, the five best ways to serve olives are on your fingertips.

The smallest California table olive crop in at least 25 years could make decorating fingers with the black globes more expensive.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that this year's olive harvest, which began last week, will reach just 50,000 tons -- the lowest since 1981 and only 35% of what was picked last year.

Growers and canners predict that it will fall even lower, maybe to 35,000 tons or less as farmers decide that some trees in their orchards are so sparse that it doesn't make financial sense to pay workers to comb through them.

"We have seen pretty much a 100% crop failure," said Chris Henderson, general manager of Genoa Farms in Tehama County. "This is quite an economic blow. The crop is our payday of the year, and it's not there."

Henderson said his trees bore some fruit but probably not enough to pay laborers to pick it. The grower, who will have to rely on his almond crop this year, harvested about 4,000 tons of olives from the farm's 700-acre orchard last year.

"This is going to show up in higher prices" at retail, said Bill McFarland, senior vice president of sales and development for Musco Family Olive Co., the Tracy, Calif., canner of the Black Pearls brand.

McFarland said consumers would probably see rising prices for olives before Thanksgiving, depending on what big supermarket chains decide to do. A 6-ounce can of extra large olives retails for about $2 but is frequently on sale. Instead of raising prices, retailers may limit the discounts, he said.

Two regions of the state produce virtually all of the nation's table olives and a good portion of what goes on pizzas and in salad bars of restaurants, said Adin Hester, president of the Olive Growers Council in Visalia, Calif.

One region encompasses Tehama and Glenn counties, where trees started to bud earlier than usual during an unseasonably warm January. A February frost killed much of the new growth.

Farther south in Tulare, Madera and Fresno counties, a series of storms in late April and May washed the blossoms off the trees, preventing pollination.

"It is the worst I have ever seen," said Bill Krueger, a veteran farm advisor at University of California Cooperative Extension in Glenn County.

Farmers grew about $73 million worth of table olives last year but will be lucky to recoup half that amount this year, even if the olives sell at higher prices, industry officials said.

The growers who do have enough fruit to pick will probably get $900 to $1,000 a ton, up from $595 last year, said Hester of the growers council. But the price increase won't make up for the lost tonnage or the extra expense of harvesting a small crop, Hester said.

The meager crop comes during a tough time for table olive growers, who are facing greater competition from overseas and higher expenses from rising fuel and agricultural chemical prices, Krueger said.

Exporters in Spain, Morocco and other countries have captured about 40% of the olive trade in pizza parlors, restaurants and cafeterias in the U.S., Hester said.

Farmers also are paying about $100 an acre extra -- compared with a decade ago -- fighting the olive fly, a pest that invaded the state about seven years ago, Krueger said.

The University of California advisor said he expected the crop "disaster" to accelerate a decline in acreage of California table olive orchards, which had fallen to less than 30,000 acres from 35,000 in fewer than five years.

California's burgeoning olive oil trade will be scrambling to find fruit but isn't likely to take as big a hit as the table olive growers.

"We know our crop is off about 25% and I have other oil producers calling asking if I know where they can get some fruit," said Alan Greene, general manager of California Olive Ranch in Oroville, the state's largest maker of olive oil.

But the margins on oil are much higher than on canned olives, and warrant picking through an orchard even when the fruit is sparse, he said.

Moreover, Greene said California producers had benefited from a similar failure of Spain's crop of oil-producing olives last year, which pushed olive oil prices to their highest level in many years.

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jerry.hirsch@latimes.com

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