It helps that demand for olive oil has been on the rise, with its health benefits being a major selling point. Americans also have become more knowledgeable about quality and want assurances that the oil they purchase is extra-virgin grade, Darragh said. The council has had a program certifying California olive oil since 1998, she added.
With adoption of state standards that exceed international standards, California also is differentiating its oils from others, said Dan Flynn, executive director of the University of California Olive Center.
“For the moment, things are looking pretty darn good for the California olive oil industry and there’s a lot of interest in planting acreage for oil,” he said.
At the same time, the state has largely moved away from producing table olives, with 15,000 to 16,000 acres left, according to Adin Hester, president of the Olive Growers Council.
In contrast, total olive-oil acreage is about 38,000 and is projected to grow 3,500 acres a year through 2020, Darragh said.
Table olive growers, who are about halfway through harvest, are removing their acreage and planting crops such as nuts that can be mechanically harvested, Hester said.
“That’s one of the issues we continue to deal with because we still pretty much handpick all of our table olives,” he said.
If California table-olive acreage drops below current levels, he said, canneries would have to look elsewhere to buy enough fruit to meet demand. Processors already buy olives from Spain, Argentina and Morocco to fill supply gaps when the state runs short, he noted, particularly during the “off” years of the crop’s alternate-bearing cycle.
California table olives have long struggled against lower-priced imports, mostly in the form of sliced black ripe olives used in foodservice. Offshore olives outnumber California olives 2-to-1 in that market, Hester noted. Most California table olives are processed as black ripes and sold at the retail level.The shift to mechanization has spurred growth in California olive oil production,