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Revised February 2023.
Olives originated in the region of southern Europe near the Mediterranean Sea. Currently the largest producing countries are in that same region, with Spain, Italy, Morocco, Turkey and Greece being the largest producers. Most olive production is used for oil, but there are significant markets for processed olives for food, usually as an appetizer or snack or as an additive to cooked dishes. Olives used for oil contain up to 20% oil by weight including the pit.
Olive trees require warm, dry summers, and cool (but not cold) winters to bear excellent fruit. Olive trees also need a very well-drained soil. They have a relatively shallow root system and therefore can tolerate shallow soils. Though they tolerate some frost, prolonged sub-freezing temperatures can kill the tree. Late spring frost can kill blossoms and drastically reduce yields. Olive trees can be productive for many years, but require regular pruning. New super high-density orchards are gaining popularity as they allow for higher yields, ease in pruning and harvesting, and enable earlier bearing.
Olives were brought to South America, and subsequently to California, in the 1700s. However, commercial production did not begin until the 1800s. The industry developed at that time to satisfy the rising demand for olive oil, and production began to flourish. California produces more than 95 percent of the olives grown in the U.S. Originally, California olive production was intended for oil. However, as production increased faster than the demand for the oil other markets were developed. In the early 1900s, advances in canning technology promoted higher returns for canned olives, and many producers changed to producing olives for canning. Prior to 2000, 96% of the olives produced in California were canned or processed. With new production techniques that favor oil producing olives and a rising demand for locally produced oil, however, the percentage of olives used for oil is currently around 60%.
Olive production on a given field is highly variable over years, largely due to the alternate bearing nature of olive trees, though new techniques that include changes in plant spacing and fertilization regimes have been able to regulate this variability to some extent. Tree density is an important management practice. Traditional plantings had fewer than 80 plants per acre. In the 1980s high density systems were developed (100-340 trees per acre). These systems allowed trees to reach full production earlier and enabled the trees to be harvested with tree shakers for the first 15 years after establishment. Canned olives are largely produced in these two systems in the U.S. In the mid-1990, super high-density systems were introduced where the trees are grown at greater than 600 trees per acre and are grown in hedgerows. This system is primarily used for oil types as there are oil-type varieties available that tolerate this intensive system. Oil types can be harvested by hand, or by machines, with the trend for mechanical harvesting.
The area planted to olive trees has remained between 30,000 and 40,000 acres since 1980. In 2021, there were 36,000 bearing acres, yielding 2.8 tons per acre with a total of 101,000 tons of olives produced at a value of $85.04 million dollars. Of the 101,000 tons of olives produced in 2021, 54,390 tons were crushed for oil valued at $764 per ton; 31,400 tons were canned valued at $1,110 per ton; 12,000 tons were processed as “limited” valued at $720 per ton; and 2,200 tons were processed as “undersized” and valued at minus $2 per ton (NASS, 2022). Most canned olives are used in foodservice channels, such as pizza and fast-food chains. The continued popularity of Mediterranean cuisine also contributes to their sustained consumption.
There is a small market for fresh olives sold for home processing. Olives intended for this market must be sold soon after harvest. Fresh market olives are sold from the farm, at farmer markets or online. The fresh market season extends from September to January, depending on the location of the farm and the variety grown. Processed olives are marketed throughout the year. Olives harvested for oil are usually crushed within a few days of harvest.
Demand for olive oil has increased significantly in recent years, largely in response to the increased publicity of associated health benefits of unsaturated fats. Some of the promoted beneficial attributes of olive oil include being a high source of antioxidants such as vitamin E and K and being a monounsaturated fat, which helps to prevent cardiovascular disease. Olive oil produced in the U.S. must compete with other lower-priced vegetable rivals such as canola, corn and safflower oils and from olive oil imported from Europe. The California Olive Oil Council has established an Extra-Virgin certification program that certifies oil that has been pressed from 100% California grown olives that has helped to add value to olive oil produced in California and caters to the consumers that have an interest in locally produced products.
The U.S. is a net importer of olive products. U.S. olive oil imports come mainly from Italy, followed by Spain and Tunisia. The United States also purchases prepared or preserved olives from Spain, Greece and Italy. Fresh olives are also imported from Mexico.
During 2021, the United States exported 8,19 million pounds of prepared olives valued at $7.96 million. The top buyers were Canada at 35.4% followed by Japan and Mexico. Imports for preserved olives reached 235.8 million pounds at a value of $367.7 million. Top countries were 50.9 percent from Spain followed by Greece and Morocco. There is no information for dried and olive oil.
Helpful enterprise budgets for olives:
Sample Costs for Olive Oil: Establish a Super-high Density Olive Orchard and Produce Olives for Oil. Arbequina Variety – Drip Irrigation Sacramento Valley. 2016, University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources Cooperative Extension.
Sample Costs to Produce Table Olives. 2016, University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources Cooperative Extension.
The Story of California Ripe Olives, 2021, California Olive Committee.
Certification Process, 2021, California Olive Oil Council.
Noncitrus Fruits and Nuts Summary, 2022, National Agricultural Statistical Service, USDA.
What is in Olive Oil, 2021, The Olive Oil Source.
Olives: Safe Methods for Home Pickling, 2016, University of California – Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
Cultivar and Tree Density as Key Factors in the Long-Term Performance of Super High-Density Olive Orchards, 2016, Fronters in Plant Science.
Irrigation Water Management of Olives Under Drought Conditions, 2016, University of California – Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
Tree Selection – Common Choices, 2021, The Olive Oil Source.
Crop Guide: Growing Olives, 2021, Haifa: Pioneering the Future.