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Revised September 2021.
According to the California olive industry, olives originated in the Mediterranean countries of southern Europe. 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. Originally, California olive production was intended for oil; however, as the market became abundant with olive oil, the prices dropped, and a new plan for olives needed to materialize. By the early 1900s, advances in canning technology promoted higher returns for canned olives, and producers changed to producing olives for canning (“Olive History” – California Olive Committee, 2021).
California produces more than 95 percent of the olives grown in the nation (“About the Olive Industry” – California Olive Committee, 2021). Some of the olive varieties being grown include the Manzanillo, which is most commonly used for producing the black “California-style” table olives; Sevillano, another variety used for producing table olives; Mission olives used to produce both table olives and olives for oil; and Arbequina, another variety used to produce olives for oil (“Tree Selection” – The Olive Oil Source, 2021).
Processed olives can be marketed year-round, whereas fresh olives sold for home processing have a set season (NASS, 2021). The season for fresh olives is from September through January (“Olives” – CUESA, 2021).
Chaffin Family Orchards in Oroville, Calif., produce fresh green olives that are ready for harvest in mid-September, and their fresh black olives are ready for harvest a couple months later (“Black Olives” – Chaffin Family Orchards, 2016). Like many olive farms, Chaffin Family Orchards sell their fresh olives online, as well as onsite at their farm and through their local farmers’ market (“Where to Buy” – Chaffin Family Orchards, 2016). More consumers are getting curious in the kitchen and processing their own food. Doing demonstrations on curing olives can entice customers to try your product, as well as add value (Yada et al, 2007).
To further add value, olives can be canned, made into tapenades, and processed into oil. In recent years, U.S. demand for olive oil has increased dramatically. However, European imports have met much of the increase. Despite this European dominance, the California industry has grown in recent years rising from 1 percent of the total market in 2011, to now 4 percent (Rodriguez, 2015).
There are more than 400 olive oil companies in California (Rodriguez, 2015). Olive oil competes with other lower-priced vegetable rivals such as canola, corn and safflower oils. Some U.S. producers believe that enforcement of grading standards as published by the International Olive Oil Council (IOOC) could help high-quality California producers compete with European imports. The California Olive Oil Council (COOC) has established an Extra Virgin certification program that certifies oil that has been pressed from 100 percent California-grown olives and meets IOOC standards for chemical and sensory analyses (Lindahl, 2014) (Rodriguez, 2015) (“Certification Process” – COCC, 2021).
Olive production has been highly variable over the years, largely due to the alternate bearing nature of olive trees (“About the Olive Industry” – California Olive Committee, 2021). California is the only state in the United States listed as commercially producing olives. In 2020, the bearing acreage for olives was 36,000 acres, yielding 1.88 tons per acre (acreage has remained between 30,000 and 40,000 acres since 1980); with a total of 67,000 tons of olives produced at a value of $57,909 dollars (NASS, 2021).
Of the 67,000 tons of olives produced in 2020, 44,190 tons were crushed for oil valued at $791 per ton; 20,020 tons were canned valued at $1060 per ton; 2,410 tons were processed as “limited” valued at $720 per ton; and 340 tons were processed as “undersized” and valued at minus $2 per ton (NASS, 2021).
The Agricultural Marketing Service explains the terminology of “limited” and “undersized” olives as “limited use means the use of processed olives in the production of packaged olives of the halved, segmented (wedged), sliced, or chopped styles, as defined in the U.S. Standards for Grades of Canned Ripe Olives ... undersize olives means olives of a size which shall be disposed of in non-canning use” (“Agricultural Marketing Service, USDA” – GPO, 1982).
Exports/Imports/United States Consumption
During 2015, the United States exported 7,141 metric tons (MT) of olive oil valued at more than $23.8 million. The top buyers of U.S. olive oil were Canada, followed by Mexico and Taiwan. In 2015, the United States also exported 5,926 MT of prepared or preserved olives valued at nearly $11.8 million. Prepared or preserved olives were shipped mostly to Canada, Japan, and Spain. Finally, the United States shipped 196 MT of fresh olives valued at $2.7 million mainly to Canada. There is no updated information on imports or exports.
The United States is a net importer of olive products. During 2015, the United States purchased more than 313,000 MT of olive oil valued at nearly $1.2 billion. U.S. olive oil imports came mainly from Italy, followed by Spain and Tunisia. The United States also purchased prepared or preserved olives valued at nearly $414 million. Spain accounted for 87 percent of the prepared or preserved olive imports, followed by Greece and Italy. Fresh olives valued at nearly $2.3 million were imported, primarily from Mexico. The metric tons imported for prepared or preserved and fresh olives was not reported. There is no updated information since 2015.
Most canned olives are used in foodservice channels, such as pizza and fast food chains (Buzby et al, 2020). The continued popularity of Mediterranean cuisine also contributes to sustained consumption (Xiong et al, 2014).
Demand for olive oil has increased significantly in recent years, largely in response to the increased publicity of associated health benefits for unsaturated fats (Xiong et al, 2014). 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 (“What is in Olive Oil” – The Olive Oil Source, 2021).
Olive trees are very drought tolerant; however supplemental irrigation is needed to produce prime fruit in a commercial orchard. With supplemental irrigation olive trees maximize their shoot growth and fruit size, thus fruit yield and yield of oil per acre (Connell et al, 2016).
California’s California is where the majority of U.S. olives are produced, and shares a similar climate with many of the Mediterranean countries known for their olive oil production (Greece, Italy, and Spain). 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 (Case, 2014).
Currently in 2016, California is in its fourth year of a severe drought, which has made producing certain crops, including olives, more challenging (Ross, 2016). It is normal for California to go through periods of drought and wet years, and unfortunately, there is no perfect crop for both scenarios (Ingram and Malamud-Roam, 2013).
Helpful enterprise budgets for olives:
- 2007 – Sample Costs to Establish a Super-High Density Olive Orchard and Produce Olive Oil in the Sacramento Valley, University of California Cooperative Extension.
- 2011 – Sample Costs to Establish a Medium-Density Olive Orchard and Produce Bottled Olive Oil on the North and Central Coasts of California, University of California Cooperative Extension.
- 2011 – Sample Costs to Establish a High-Density Olive Orchard and Produce Table Olives in the Sacramento Valley, University of California Cooperative Extension.
During 2012, the United States exported 6,989 metric tons (MT) of olive oil, a 66 percent increase from 2011, valued at more than $17.2 million, up 41 percent from 2011. The top buyers of U.S. olive oil were Canada, followed by Mexico and Hong Kong. The United States also exported 4,648 MT of prepared olives valued at nearly $9.4 million in 2012. Prepared olives were shipped mostly to Canada and Japan. Finally, the United States shipped 340 MT of fresh olives valued at $843,000 mainly to Canada. (FAS 2012)
About the Olive Industry, California Olive Committee, 2021.
Agricultural Marketing Service, USDA, U.S. Government Publishing Office (GPO), 1982.
Black Olives for Home Curing, Chaffin Family Orchards, 2016.
Connell, J., Wheeler, R., Grattan, S., Goldhamer, D., Schwankl, L., & Vossen, P., (2016). Irrigation Water Management of Olives Under Drought Conditions, University of California – Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
Certification Process, California Olive Oil Council, 2021.
Lindahl, C., (2014). California Approves Olive Oil Standards, Olive Oil Times.
Noncitrus Fruits and Nuts Summary, National Agricultural Statistical Service (NASS), USDA, 2021.
Olives, Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA), 2021.
Olive History, California Olive Committee, 2021.
Tree Selection – Common Choices, The Olive Oil Source, 2021.
Where to Buy, Chaffin Family Orchards, 2016.
Xiong, B., Matthews, W., & Sumner, D., (2014). New Demand for Old Food: the U.S. Demand for Olive Oil, Agricultural Issues Center, University of California.
Yada, S., Harris, L.J., York, G., & Vaughn, R., (2007). Safe Methods for Home Pickling, University of California – Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
Links checked September 2021.