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Harsh spring means Calif. olive crop is the pits

/ Source: The Associated Press

Extra olives with your martini? Bartenders soon may think twice about that, with table olive prices expected to go up as California growers face their second-lightest harvest in more than a decade.

State and federal agriculture officials have predicted that the table olive crop is down by half this year because of harsh spring weather. And that's only half the bad news: Farmers say sparse fruit means it's not practical to pick the fruit from many trees, reducing supply and driving up prices.

"Mother Nature has not been kind to us," said Adin Hester, president of the Olive Growers Council in Tulare. "It's not a pretty scene."

Since 2000, the harvests on California's 26,000 acres of table olive trees, mainly the manzanillo and sevillano varieties, have been increasingly inconsistent. That has prompted some growers to sell off their trees to landscapers and plant citrus or pomegranates in their place.

Last year's boom harvest of 132,000 tons followed a record-low 23,000-ton harvest in 2006.

While the U.S. Department of Agriculture's probability survey released Tuesday predicts that there are 65,000 tons of olives in the field, growers say fewer than 45,000 tons will actually be harvested because rising fuel and labor costs mean they might not make enough from the crop to even cover the cost of picking it.

"I can count on one hand the number of people here with any kind of crop this year," said Rod Burkett, who farms 30 acres of olive trees and oversees 2,700 more in Tulare County, where more than half of California's table olive crop originates.

Hester blames late rain for 2006's record-low crop, and a heat wave in April followed by high winds dried up pollen for this year's crop.

"We've had some unfortunate weather patterns that have hurt," he said. "But growers are the ultimate optimists. Hopefully we'll have a good crop next year."

California produces almost 80 percent of the table olives consumed in the United States, but its acreage is dwarfed by Spain, which has 5.6 million acres of cultivated olives.

Trees grown for olive oil have not suffered as severely, Hester said, because the smaller fruit size makes them less susceptible to weather, especially wind.

Growers currently are negotiating 2008 prices with processors, so it's unclear how big of an impact the light crop will have on prices.

Last year, they earned $1,000 a ton for the largest-grade olives. Burkett said growers need to produce 3 to 4 tons an acre to turn a profit, but most fields he has seen have 2 tons or less this year.

Burkett's own orchards currently have about 1 ton of olives per acre; last year it produced 9 tons an acre, he said.

"I don't care if you're making spark plugs or olives, you need a constant flow into the market," Burkett said. "We can't build a market and then say, 'We don't have any olives this year.'"