What once was a thriving agricultural commodity in California has dwindled down to a few hold-outs in the olive industry. There used to be 18,000 acres planted with olives in Tulare County, said Adin Hester, president and CEO of the Olive Growers Council, which is based in Visalia. Now there are just 10,000 and that number is expected to continue its descent.
Similarly, the number of commercial canneries has taken a major fall from nine in 1977, to two, Bell-Carter Foods in Corning, which carries the Lindsay Olive label, and Musco in Tracy. There were once 29 canneries in California, Hester said.
“Imports from Spain and Morocco have pretty much taken over the food supply market,” he said.
Olives used in restaurant salad bars and as pizza toppings, as well as those in cooking, are almost all imported.
“And now, imports are trying to work into the grocery market as well,” he added.
They are not the same. California grows different varieties than the imports, and often those sold to the food supply market are not table olives, but rather oil olives, which have a different flavor, he said.
“We have a much better tasting table olive than they do,” Hester said.
There are advantages and disadvantages to growing olives versus other tree crops.
Olives are a desert shrub, the trees will live through the drought even when not irrigated, Hester said. But, they will not produce fruit without water. Many growers in the Terra Bella area, who together have about 2,000 acres of olive trees, will not have a harvest this year. But their trees will live on.
Olive trees have a very long life and will continue to produce, when watered. Trees alternate quality production from year-to-year. One year a tree will see very good production, while the next it will produce only a minimal amount. This can lead to an unstable harvest.
One year, an acre may produce four to five tons of olives, while the next it may only produce two, Hester said.
Olives are also expensive to harvest. The older orchards are planted for hand-harvesting, which is labor intensive and expensive, Hester said.
And without much of a market for domestic olives, the expense is not worth the return, at this time.
Many growers have opted to tear out their olives and replace them with nut trees, Hester said, which demand a much higher price.
There are some hold-outs, though. While agriculture is a business, there is also the element of family tradition, and some olives groves are as old, or older, than those maintaining them.
Vito DeLeonardis’ family has been growing olives in Tulare County since the 1950’s, when his grandfather moved here from Italy.
“We want to keep this a viable business and we don’t want it to go away,” he said.
DeLeonardis maintains approximately 250 acres in olives, mostly the Manzanilla variety. Most of the olives go to the cannery, he said, while a very small percentage are used to make the family’s olive oil. The locally produced oil is sold in local markets and farmers markets.
Most of the DeLeonardis olive trees are fairly young, he said, having planted many trees in the 1990’s.
“They are right in their prime,” he said.
Admittedly, DeLeonardis has diversified, also growing citrus and almonds, but he hangs on to the idea that olives should stay a California commodity.
“It’s a good product,” he said, “and hopefully it will survive here.”
Other local businesses in the industry include Armstrong Olives in Porterville and Bari Olive Oil Company in Dinuba.
A lot of the olive growers’ problems stem from politics, both DeLeonardis and Hester said.
Hester sited the US promising Morocco some $300 million in aid to stimulate agriculture there, just a few years ago, allowing growers there to revive their trees, while there is no help for local olive growers with the drought, or anything else, he said.
“No one called me about it,” he said.
Morocco is the second largest competitor for the olive market, with Spain being the first.
“It all has to do with politics,” DeLeonardis said.
The olive harvest traditionally begins around Labor Day. Hester is currently working out demands and pricing for local growers with the canneries.
And, while it may not seem like a good investment now, Hester hopes that growers will continue to consider olives into the future. New plantings should take into consideration a change in harvesting techniques utilizing shakers. It will be more labor intensive to grow trees with taller trunks, but it will reduce time and expense for harvest, he said.