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Will California’s Drought Create an Olive Oil Boom?

New quality standards, concerns over water, and growing demand could convince more farmers to grow olives.
Sep 17, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

Three days is a long time for a garden to go without water, especially in the midst of a heat wave. That’s just what my backyard had to endure recently, when a vacation coincided with a stretch of days where temperatures topped 100 degrees in Los Angeles. I came home on Sunday afternoon to find my plants withering in the heat, some of the leaves drooping so badly that I thought they would die altogether.

Thanks to the drought-tolerant seeds I planted, a long drink was enough to bring most everything back from the brink. But I didn’t bother to water my Mission olive tree at all. The youngish sapling that’s just a bit taller than me looked no worse for the wear—and it never really does, no matter the weather. While I do water it occasionally, giving it one long drink a couple of times a year isn’t even needed. It just...grows.

That resilience goes a long way to explaining why olives have been grown by humans for some 6,000 years. There are gnarled trees in Gethsemane, a historic garden in Jerusalem, that are closing in on their 1,000th birthdays. In comparison, the history of olive trees in California, which date back to groves planted by Spanish missionaries near San Diego, is only a couple of centuries old. But we’ve flirted with olives on and off over the years, the relationship sometimes running hot, other times cold. In 1872, for example, Scientific America wrote, “The culture of the olive tree and the manufacture of oil from its fruit is gradually becoming a leading industry in California.” A few decades later, there was a 36-acre olive orchard growing on a hilltop in what is today the eastern edge of Hollywood.

That promise of a leading industry didn’t materialize, but between the drought and America’s ever-rising consumption of olive oil, olea europaea increasingly looks like it could be good for California farmers—both from a business and an ecological standpoint. Early this month, the California Department of Food and Agriculture made an announcement that could bolster the growing domestic olive oil industry: It may soon require purity and quality testing and could ban common (but misleading) labeling language like “light” and “pure” olive oil. Ensuring that domestic oils are unadulterated could help turn local-shopping-minded consumers away from Spanish or Italian olive oil, which can be suspect. Perhaps Scientific America was 150 years early with its prophecy.

Unsurprisingly, importers are not thrilled with the proposed regulations. “The manipulative and confrontational tactics are not serving any California industry segment,” writes Eryn Balch, executive vice president of the North American Olive Oil Association, an importer trade group, in a letter to the department.

Judging by the current state of the olive industry in California, the only people likely to be hurt by new standards for olive oil are those who produce canned ripe olives. According to the California Olive Committee, 90 percent of the state’s harvest is processed as canned olives. Of the two main olive varieties grown in the states, the Sevillano is considered to have low oil content and is better suited for cured olives than pressing for oil. According to the USDA Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, olive oil production “existed mainly as an option for olive producers in years when production was especially large or when harvested olives were of poor quality.”

But canned ripe California olives are an anachronism. The majority of domestic olives are used as pizza toppings, and according to the USDA, per capita consumption for canned olives was less than a pound in 2009. The U.S. olive oil market, however, is the third largest in the world; we collectively drizzled 293,000 metric tons last year. The United States produced just 10,000 metric tons in 2013—up from 1,000 metric tons just seven years ago.

Those who are already making olive oil in California can clearly see lots of market potential. “The importers know that if we establish ourselves as the premier, authentic producers of olive oil, we'll cut into their business over time,” Jeff Colombini of Lodi Farming told the Los Angeles Times. “They're running scared.”

But there’s a difference between building a lucrative olive oil industry and a sustainable one. Today, much of the roughly 40,000 acres of olives in the state are grown on fertile, irrigated land in the Central Valley—farms that might otherwise be planted with almonds or other thirstier fruit trees. Swapping olives for almonds would certainly help reduce the amount of water sucked up by California’s agriculture industry, but that wouldn’t be putting the olives to their best use. These are trees that don’t need to be grown on some of the best soil for farming in the entire world. An olive orchard can take root in sandy, marginal soils, growing on rocky hillsides or other parched, dusty stretches of dirt that might not otherwise be considered farmland. And while trees may need some irrigation to ensure a good crop, much of Spain’s 5 million acres of olives are dry-farmed.

Still, even commercial growers reported using an average of 20 inches of water per tree annually, according to a UC Davis report, whereas almonds require between 3½ to 4 feet per year.

In 2000, a stand of 200-year-old olive trees were found on property that had once been farmed by the Jesuits at Mission La Purisima Conception, northwest of Santa Barbara. The tree in my backyard, and others that have been planted at Missions and orchards around the state in the last decade, are descendants of those ancient trees. When the grove was rediscovered, the trees, uncultivated (and not irrigated) for more than a lifetime, were still bearing olives.

This September, Pivot TV will feature an entire month of “Food for Thought” programming to explore what's really happening in the American agriculture system. For more information, head over to the "Food for Thought" page to find out when the next program airs and take action.