A down year for olive growers

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Olive farmers know a thing or two about ups and downs and highs and lows and good times and bad times.

Consider this: Last year, olive growers enjoyed a record-setting harvest and, better yet, record-breaking prices. This year, some of those same farmers have applied for Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program (NAP) money.

Olive prices are still good, but prices do not matter if there is no fruit on the trees.

That is what has happened in one year’s time. In 2010, 164,900 tons were harvested across the state. This year, the Olive Growers Council of California (OGCC) is projecting that number to shrivel by 86 percent to 23,000 tons come harvest time.

“It’s another disaster crop, unfortunately,” OGCC President Adin Hester said Tuesday. “We knew it was going to be a smaller crop because last year’s crop was so big, but it shouldn’t have been a blank crop.”

Olives, like pistachios, have an alternate-bearing characteristic, which means how much they yield varies from year to year. Some farmers do not have any olives on their trees at all this season, according to an OGCC press release.

The bleak situation has prompted Hester and his office to petition the Tulare County Agricultural Commissioner’s office to consider declaring the district a disaster area.

Doing so would enable farmers to get their hands on federal monies to help recoup some of their costs. Some districts in Northern California have already been declared disaster areas, Hester said.

“We’re trying to get [the Tulare County Agricultural Commissioner’s office] to consider doing that,” Hester said. “Hopefully they do.”

Christian Crouzet, who farms 10 acres of olives southwest of the corner of Road 208 and Avenue 120, said Friday that he did not know if he will even take the time to hire a crew to pick his fruit.

“I have to talk to my contractor. He has to come and look, and he’ll give me a price. If the price is too high, I’m not going to pick,” Crouzet said.

Crouzet said his acreage yielded 110 tons, or 11 tons per acre, last season. The price was $1,250 per ton for extra large-, large- and medium-size manzanillos, and $1,150 per ton for extra large-, large- and medium-size sevillanos. The prices drop off from there.

This year, the price schedule is the same, but Hester said growers, if they choose to glean the little amount of fruit that may be on the trees, can expect to receive about half a ton per acre. For Crouzet, that translates to 5 tons — a 95 percent dropoff from last season.

“That’s why there are so many olive trees going out of production,” said Rod Burkett, a local olive farmer who is also the chairman of the OGCC. “We have to get the alternate bearings sorted out. If we have a really big crop and then a medium crop, then we can average this thing out and start making money. But when we have these big extremes — we had a big crop last year and then we have nothing — you can’t survive.”

So how do olive growers survive? The key, Crouzet said, is to grow different crops that can offset other crops’ down years.

Crouzet, for example, farms 23 acres of cherries, 20 acres of tangerines and six and a half acres of grapes in addition to his olives. He is also the owner of Crouzet Irrigation Inc.

“In farming, when you’re small, if you want to survive, you have to be diversified,” Crouzet said. “If you’re diversified, hopefully one crop will make it.”

In addition to his olive crop, Burkett farms 63 acres of oranges and 20 acres of lemons. He is also a pest control adviser for Leffingwell Ag Sales.

Burkett has harvested his olive crop each year the past four seasons, but he said he only made money off the 2010 crop.

“My salary and growing oranges and lemons paid for the olives because the olives wouldn’t even pay for themselves,” Burkett said. “Even though it was a really good year last year, when I averaged it out, it didn’t give me enough return on my investment to pay for the farming for four years.”

Burkett said next year’s crop is already forming. He said applying nutrients to the soil now, so that the nutrients will be stored in the wood when the buds start to grow next spring, is important.

When next spring arrives, olive farmers will hope for steady, semi-warm temperatures — which they did not get this spring. In May, when the blooms were forming, weather patterns were hugely inconsistent. For example, according to AccuWeather.com, May 5 saw a high of 93 degrees. Four days later, the high was 66 degrees.

Crouzet added that it rained May 15-16, causing the pollen to get wet and sticky and fall to the ground instead of pollinating flowers on the trees.

“A lot of the olives didn’t form because it was too cold or too hot,” Burkett said.

The weather in May 2010 was “just perfect,” Burkett said, which paved the way for a banner year. The average high for the month was 77 degrees, according to AccuWeather.com.

Until next spring arrives, olive farmers will continue to prepare for next year’s harvest, hoping that Mother Nature will be more generous and that the alternate-bearing characteristic will not deal another sloppy hand.

“It’s critical that we have the right temperatures and the right nutrients when these olives start, and that happens before the bloom even opens up,” Burkett said. “Until you get that olive formed, it’s critical.”

Contact Alex K.W. Schultz at 784-5000, Ext. 1050 or aschultz@portervillerecorder.com

source:  recorderonline.com

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