The biggest threat to California's historic olive industry isn't the bad weather, disease, prohibitive harvesting costs and fierce competition already taking their toll, growers say: It's the federal government.
The United States has promised Morocco - one of California's main competitors - hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to stimulate agriculture in that country, including rehabilitating its more than 1 million acres of existing olive trees and planting 150,000 additional acres. This while California, the only state to commercially produce olives, has been battling Morocco and Spain for the black table-olive and olive-oil markets in this country for more than a decade, local growers said.
"We're struggling to survive, only to find out that our own country is subsidizing the very place that could put us out of business," said one farmer, who with his three sons has 500 acres of Manzanillo and Sevillano table-olive trees in Orland. He hopes that his grandchildren will someday run the farm, but worries that California olive growers could be a dying breed.
By now, his trees should be weighed down with fruit. But spring rains and winds destroyed much of California's olive crop this year; the U.S. Department of Agriculture predicts the harvest will be down 67 percent. Although olive trees are alternate-bearing, that is, they yield a robust harvest only every other year, this will be one of the worst years for growers in recent history, said the president of the Olive Growers Council of California.
Most probably, an abundance of highly subsidized and lower-priced olives and oil are being imported and inundating the U.S. market.Read more