Thursday, August 14, 2014

Drought Expected to Disrupt California’s Olive — and Olive Oil — Harvest

By Luke Tsai
Thu, Aug 14, 2014 at 7:30 AM

amphora_olive_oil.jpg
  • Amphora Nueva
California’s prolonged drought is poised to claim another victim: this year’s olive harvest.

The Fresno Bee reports that the drought and other weather-related difficulties are expected to cause California’s 2014 table olive crop to be roughly 45-percent lower than last year’s — 50,000 tons, down from 91,000. (This in spite of the fact that the drought prompted at least some farmers in the Central Valley to switch to growing olive trees instead of more water-intensive crops such as rice or almonds.)

At some olive ranches, the crop is so poor that the farms might not even bother to harvest them. “I could send a crew in and have them pick all day, but they may end up with only half a bucket of fruit,” Rod Burkett, a farmer in Tulare County, told The Bee.

Here in the East Bay, purveyors of California olives and — perhaps even more alarmingly — of California olive oil will likely see some impact. Nate Bradley, general manager and master blender at the Berkeley-based olive oil shop Amphora Nueva, said he doesn’t expect the supply of olive oil olives to be affected quite as much as table olives, which, because they’re meant to be eaten, tend to be larger varietals that require more water.

Still, as Bradley noted, “There’s definitely going to be an impact one way or other, and it’s going to be reflected in the prices of California olive oil to some extent.”

For Amphora Nueva, however, there are a couple of silver linings. Because the shop sources its olive oils from all over the world, and because Europe’s most famous olive-producing countries (Spain, Italy, etc.) harvest their olives at the same time as California, Bradley said he might just wind up carrying more of the European oils this winter — especially if California’s prices prove to be exorbitant.

Also, counterintuitively, the drought might actually cause the quality of the olive oil that does get produced to be higher.

“When olives get less water — when the trees get distressed — the polyphenols go way up,” Bradley explained.

Olive oil junkies will know, of course, that polyphenols are the antioxidants that help make olive oils so healthy and that give certain varietals their distinctive peppery kick, especially when the oils are very fresh. Californian olive oils, on the whole, tend to be relatively low in polyphenol content — in part, Bradley believes, because California’s olive trees are typically over-watered. This year that certainly won’t be the case.

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