There's News About Olive Oil -- And It Sucks

Olive trees in Catalonia, Spain
Olive trees in Catalonia, Spain
PCB75 via Flickr

You might want to consider laying in a little extra olive oil.

What was looking like a lackluster 2014 olive oil harvest got even crappier late last month when news filtered out of Italy that -- following a hot spring (bad for olive trees) and a wet summer (bad for olive trees) -- groves in Tuscany have fallen prey to a pest known as the olive fruit fly (very bad for olive trees). Add that to droughts in Greece and Spain, lower-than-expected harvests in Turkey and Tunisia, and bone-dry conditions in California, and -- well, it's enough to make a grown gourmand weep.

A Wall Street Journal article in late May raised the specter of tree troubles in Europe. Last weekend's Daily Mail outlined the particulars of the blight in Italy, where Bactrocera oleae lay their eggs inside olives and the larvae eat their way out. (Go ahead and click the link. It looks as gross as it sounds.)

Predicting a drop in production of as much as 80 percent in some areas, a spokesman for a Tuscan growers' cooperative told the Mail prices in Europe might rise up to 40 percent.

On this side of the Atlantic, meanwhile, the American Olive Oil Producers Association isn't ready to sound the alarm. Although U.S. olive-oil production this year has been well under half that of last year -- it's estimated to hit 2.3 million gallons, compared to 5.3 million gallons in 2013 -- the association's executive director Kimberly Houlding and others in the industry say it's too soon to tell what might transpire when all's said and done. "It's a little early to say how that will affect consumer olive-oil pricing," Houlding cautions. "We're still looking at overall olive oil production and still looking at oil content as crops continue to be mulled."

Houlding also notes that California is best known for its high-quality extra-virgin olive oils, the production of which depends more on quality of yield as opposed to quantity. She points out that while production is typically volatile, it doesn't always directly translate to price hikes. "You can look back to the 2012 harvest year, when Spain was down quite a bit. Imported-olive-oil prices were up about 8 percent," she says.

On that score, the website IndexMundi offers some interesting data. This chart, for instance, shows that from October of 2013 through September 2014, the price of extra-virgin olive oil in the U.S. has risen 14.5 percent:

That's a lot. But olive production, being a crop-based process, is notoriously fickle. Here's a graph showing the vagaries in Italy from 1964 to 1990. With peaks representing 60 percent to 129 percent increases and valleys denoting plummets of up to 70 percent, it looks like a cartoon mountain range, or a vampire with really bad teeth:

Here's one that illustrates what happened in Spain in 2012:

Back in California, while it would seem most obvious to blame drought for the loss of fruit in the state, experts say rainfall isn't the biggest factor. Olive trees are the hardiest of all stone-fruit-bearing plants, with very low water-consumption requirements. But several freezes in growing regions last winter, paired with a warm and windy spring (while the blooms were setting in), took their toll on the crop. Patricia Darragh, executive director of the California Olive Oil Council, says this should not affect the industry over the long term. "Olive trees are alternate-[year]-bearing crops," Darragh explains. "This was an off year, but production is still increasing overall."

Follow Sara Ventiera on Twitter, @saraventiera.




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