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

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Ways to harvest table olives mechanically actually already exist, Flynn said, noting that UC researchers have even successfully reached benchmarks growers were seeking—to get at least 85 percent fruit removal with little to no damage to the fruit or the tree, and without any impact on processing and flavor qualities.

What’s needed now is a commercial fabricator to build a harvester to specification and take it beyond the research level, he said. But harvesters don’t work well in many of the state’s older groves. Some of them could be retrofitted, but the bulk of them would not lend readily to the equipment, he added.

“Ideally, you start off with new plantings, which is what happened in the oil sector: From the get-go, it was aimed at mechanical harvest,” he said. “For the table olive crop to keep up, it really needs to make that jump.”

Because of low returns on table olives, Hester said replacing old trees simply won’t pencil out for most growers, who pay 46 percent of what they earn on the crop to pickers.

With harvesting cost for table olives at $1,600 to $2,400 per acre compared to $250 for oil, Kelley said he does not see the situation improving for farmers, particularly with minimum wage going up and recent passage of the state agricultural-overtime bill.

“It really is in the hands of growers and processors on the table olive side as to the future of the industry and whether they can rather quickly make a transition toward modern types of production that are mechanically harvested—and whether the prices that growers can get will warrant them making that investment,” Flynn said.

Hester said he doesn’t think California table-olive acres will go away completely, though, noting that most olive growers are diversified and many of them have a long family tradition of growing olives and will “continue to fight the battle for olives.”

For olive oil, Kelley said demand continues to outstrip supply, and that has boosted prices to growers. Because olives are very water efficient and can be grown on marginal soils, he said the crop is a good fit for landowners who have limited access to water, noting that olive-oil plantings already have displaced some marginal rice ground and irrigated pastures.

“It becomes a story of mechanization, low input costs and water flexibility,” he said. “I think those are areas where olives for oil are going to have a very strong case to make to the California agricultural producer.”

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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