SLO County olive crop smaller than expected, growers say

kleslie@thetribunenews.comJanuary 2, 2014 

More small olive farms are opening each year in San Luis Obispo County as Central Coast olive oil continues to gain statewide recognition.

The latest harvest may mark a lean year for local growers, however.

Art Kishiyama, president of Central Coast Olive Growers, which represents 70 local olive farms, said many members are producing only about half as many olives as they did in 2012-13.

“Most of our growers are saying they’ve had substantially less yield,” Kishiyama said. “Some even say they’ve had none at all.”

Olives are typically harvested between September and March, depending on the type; green and blonde olives are harvested in early autumn, while black olives are picked starting in November.

Kishiyama, who owns Creston olive farm Olio Nuevo with his wife, Lynn Kishiyama, said even though his olives ripened in early November — roughly two weeks sooner than they had in 2012 — overall yield was much smaller than expected.

While a small difference in yields is normal — Kishiyama said olives are biennial in production, with high yields one year and low the next — this year’s crop was much further off than expected.

He attributed this to variables including high winds and a record-setting dry year.

“This was just a perfect storm of things combining to make it smaller than normal,” Kishiyama said.

Kishiyama did not have an estimate on how many tons of olives have been harvested countywide so far this season. But the smaller yield will likely not harm local growers much, he said. Most use farming as a second job after retiring and don’t rely on it for income, he said.

“Very few growers make money,” Kishiyama said. “Nobody does this to get wealthy.”

Longtime growers like him have seen low-yield harvests before, and since this is part of Kishiyama’s “active retirement” as calls it, his major plans for the new year include a more low-key activity.

“I plan to do a lot of fishing,” he said. “Take a break from being a busy farmer.”

Acres away

Crop yield isn’t the only thing smaller this harvest: The amount of acreage used for olive production in San Luis Obispo County also decreased in 2013.

In 2012, nearly 1,300 acres were dedicated to olive production in the county.

That number fell to approximately 1,110 acres in 2013, county agriculture officials said.

The 190-acre decrease is mostly due to a frost in late 2011 that permanently damaged acres of olive trees throughout the state, said Mary Bianchi, the county director and horticulture farm adviser for University of California Cooperative Extension.

Adin Hester, president of the Olive Growers Council of California, said about 55,000 acres are dedicated to olive production statewide — 30,000 acres for olive oil production and 25,000 acres for table olive production.

This number has been decreasing over several years as both labor costs and olive imports have, Hester said.

Still, the decrease in acreage didn’t affect the crop yield.

Hester said the 2013-14 California table olive crop was much bigger than expected, at 90,790 tons. He did not have values for the olive oil crop.

California is the sole exporter of olives in the country, producing approximately 99 percent of the nation’s olives, according to the 2012-13 California Agricultural Statistics Review report.

According to the report, in 2011, the state produced about 206,000 short tons of olives, including both table olives and olive oil, with an estimated export value of $21 million.

Locals only

Even if acreage is decreasing, the number of boutique olive growers is growing, Kishiyama said.

These new farms may not be large — most are 20 acres or less, he said — but they are still important to the local economy. They also specialize in one local favorite: olive oil.

“Just like the wine business, it’s more than what’s in the bottle; it’s the story,” Kishiyama said. “Yes, we charge more than what you pay in the supermarket. But you are paying for a superior product.”

Kishiyama said on average, local olive oils range from $20 to $35 per half-liter, while a supermarket can sell olive oils that are as low as $5 per liter.

He warned consumers to watch out for those supermarket olive oils though: A study done in 2010 at UC Davis found that as much as 60 percent to 70 percent of the “imported” olive oils found at supermarkets are diluted with other vegetable oils and flavored to taste like olive oil.

“It looks like olive oil, but it’s not real olive oil,” Kishiyama said.

Local olive growers and olive oil producers pride themselves on producing a better product, Kishiyama said. Many compete — and take the top prize at — events such as the 2013 Central Coast Olive Oil Competition, which was held in June.

Out of the 40 contestants from San Luis Obispo, San Joaquin, Santa Cruz, Sonoma and Tehama counties, local olive growers took home 14 gold medals in the 17 categories.

The top winners from San Luis Obispo County included Robbins Family Farm, with four gold medals and two best of category wins, and Fandango Olive Oil, with three gold medals and two best of category wins.

“We’re very proud of what we do,” Kishiyama said. “We’ve got to be. What sets us small growers apart is our passion.”

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