The shift to mechanization has spurred growth in California olive oil production

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The amount of land devoted to olives grown for oil will increase by about 3,500 acres a year through 2020, according to estimates from the California Olive Oil Council.

The shift to mechanization has spurred major growth in California olive oil production, but the trend has been slow to take root in the table olive sector, which continues to struggle with declining acreage.

Super-high-density olive varieties, which allow the fruit to be harvested by machine, now produce most of the state’s olive oil and make up the vast majority of new plantings.

Not only have those plantings reduced labor costs, but growers also have the ability to produce very high-quality olive oil on a large scale, said Gregg Kelley, president and CEO of Chico-based California Olive Ranch, the nation’s largest olive oil producer.

“That’s what has enabled us to compete,” he said. “Without mechanical harvesting, we just don’t have a significant industry in California.”

The company, which started harvest this week, produces between two-thirds and three-quarters of the nation’s olive oil, nearly all of which comes from California. Still, foreign oils continue to dominate U.S. grocery store shelves, with California olive oil accounting for just 5.8 percent of what U.S. consumers buy, according to the California Olive Oil Council.

That may not sound like much, but the number is significant, said the council’s Executive Director Patricia Darragh, noting that the U.S. is now the second-largest market for olive oil consumption behind the European Union. Just a few years ago, California’s share of that market was a mere 1 percent.

“California has made remarkable inroads into this market,” she said.

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