Olive Crazy: All About Olives and Olive Oil
Apr 162011

Let me present player number one in the latest international olive oil drama – California, please take a bow.

The California story I want to tell does not start way back in history with Spanish monks planting olive trees at the missions they established in California. It starts just before World War II when California was first positioned to become an international olive oil powerhouse. It is a story of opportunity and intrigue and reminds me a lot of the new television series, The Borgias, without any of the love interest stuff.

Up until WWII the California olive industry was ticking along. The markets for table olives and olive oil swung back and forth with the table olive market the primary olive market in California before the war. Why? Because the growers made more money for good looking olives that could be cured and canned.

During WWII olive groves around the Mediterranean took a beating. Many of the trees were salvageable but most of the men and women who had, in peacetime, cared for the now war-devastated olive groves found themselves a bit busy doing those things one does when war comes to visit.

California had an opportunity to reestablish their olive oil industry, which had collapsed at the end of the 19th century, and they did. California ramped up olive oil production and business flourished. The “mob” who has notoriously been involved in the Mediterranean olive oil industry bought some of the California olive groves and joined Californians in supplying olive oil to the rest of the world. Business was good.

Then the war ended and Mediterranean folks started working their farms again, free from the “feed my troops” demands of Hitler and Mussolini. Olive trees were pruned back and in a few years the trees were back in production. World olive oil production shifted back to the Mediterranean, the mob moved on, and many California olive oil producing farms went belly up. Those that survived went back to canning (metal was still scarce after the war) and tried to hang on.

Let’s move forward in time several decades to the beginning of the 21st century. The table olive market is close to saturation, and the British Medical Journal published the Mediterranean Diet study done by the University of Florence, Italy, and interest in olive oil as a means of achieving good health exploded. California growers took notice. Spanish olive growers had started 17 years before to trellis and decrease the size of olive trees for easier picking (farm labor is expensive). The newly patented olive tree varieties, called super high density, were sent to the USDA for quarantine and in the early 21st century were planted in greatest quantity in California, spreading to Texas, Georgia, and Florida. The U.S., with California in the lead, is now positioned to be a big player in the world olive oil market.

So when I asked myself “why are so many Californians “graciously” helping Georgians and Floridans develop as potential competitors for the still small U.S. olive oil market?” It’s because they cannot develop a quality olive oil industry alone. They need the help of other states to overcome a similar situation to the one they faced during and at the end of WWII. They are getting ready and the rest of the U.S. should help.

My next article will be about the collapsing European, Middle Eastern and North African economies and how it is affecting the olive oil industry.

May the sun shine through your branches.



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