From freezing temperatures to fruit-fly infestations, farmers and producers are dealing with regular interruptions to the “delicate dance” of producing olive oil
After a brutal frost swept through Le Castella last year, many of the olive trees in the small Calabrian town didn’t produce a single fruit. Giuseppe Morisani, co-founder of the Calabrian olive oil company EXAU, was luckier than some, able to harvest enough olives to press, bottle, and sell as oil. But his neighbors didn’t harvest any. “Literally nothing. I’ve never seen anything like it,” he says. Unlike Morisani, most of these neighbors don’t produce oil as a source of income: They’re doctors, lawyers, teachers. But growing olives — then pressing them, using the buttery-rich juice to cook and preserve all year — is a central part of life, sewn into the cultural fabric of this place. As the climate changes, the culture of the town is changing, too.
“It’s not just ‘farming’ anymore,” says Morisani, who runs EXAU with his wife and co-founder, Skyler Mapes. Morisani grew up where he and Mapes now produce their oil, and he has watched many of his neighbors become discouraged by the recent challenges of keeping their olive trees alive. “A farmer can’t just put an olive plant in the soil and wait until it grows anymore.”
A risk analysis of climate change in Italy, carried out in 2020 by the Euro-Mediterranean Center on Climate Change, suggests that changes are coming to the regions where a bulk of the world’s olive oil is produced: The future will see a reduction in available water, more desertification, an increased number of hot and dry days throughout the year, and more intensity when rain does come. Already, researchers have noted that annual rainfall in Calabria is decreasing. Olive trees grow best in a Mediterranean climate, where winters are cold — but not freezing — and summers are long and warm. As certain places shift away from this climate and become less hospitable to olive trees, consumers may notice the availability of olive oil from these regions changing, too: Italy produces about 17 percent of the world’s olive oil — second only to Spain, responsible for more than half of global production — and almost three-quarters of Italian olive oil is produced in Calabria and Puglia.
Founded in 2017, Morisani and Mape’s Calabrian olive oil company was born into this turbulent climate. During their first harvest, the ground froze over. “I will never forget, it was the coldest winter of my life,” says Mapes, who is from California. She layered every piece of North Face clothing she owned as she and Morisani traipsed through their fields picking olives, working to salvage fruit that hadn’t spoiled. At times, Morisani and Mapes feel like they’re racing against an invisible clock, as their harvesting season starts earlier and earlier each year. In 2020, the couple started their harvest at the end of September, which, Mapes says, “is super, super early.”
On a global scale, olive farmers and olive oil producers are feeling extreme pressure from all angles. In Greece, weather fluctuations and a heat wave resulted in a paltry 2020 harvest. The first days of 2021 saw a record-breaking storm in Spain, causing irreparable damage to olive crops in Madrid and the surrounding regions. Growers in France experienced a “catastrophic” 2019 harvest thanks to a cold spring and autumn storms, and are hopeful that 2021 will be a better year. According to the trade publication Olive Oil Times, oil production globally was at a four-year low in 2020, with olive oil production up in only a few countries and facing serious declines in Palestine, Israel, Turkey, and Italy.
Each harvest season now brings uncertainty. Until olives are harvested and safely transported to the mill, growers cross their fingers that an unexpected frost or a brutal storm won’t wipe out their year’s work. With the guidance of scientists and new technologies, these olive farmers and oil producers hope to find long-term solutions, ensuring that olive oil — a $13 billion industry in 2019 that, at least in the United States and much of Europe, is associated with intertwined ideas about health and artisanship — finds a sustainable place in this changing climate. But even with the guiding hand of science, olive farming has become what one farm owner describes as “a delicate dance.”
In their fields, Mapes and Morisani often have to decide whether fruit damaged by extreme weather conditions and bug infestation is worth the time and effort to harvest. “Depending on which way the tree is facing, you’ll have half the tree that maybe didn’t freeze, and so the other half will have olives on it, or you’ll just have very sparse branches of olives,” says Mapes. “It’s like, ‘Is it worth our time and energy to get half a crate of olives off of that tree?’ No, it’s not. So we just skip [the tree].”
Olive trees can, in many ways, be perfectly suited to building a more sustainable climate. Cover crops planted between the trees sequester carbon and nutrients back into the soil, and pruned leaves and branches, as well as pomace produced during the pressing of olives, can act as compost. Where it’s practiced, super-high-density farming — trees planted in neat rows, extremely close to one another — limits water usage and reduces the labor of harvesting olives. And olive trees themselves are a drought-resistant plant “that you can grow in many different ecological zones,” says Luigi Ponti, a researcher with the Italian National Agency for New Technologies, Energy, and Sustainable Economic Development (ENEA) and a research fellow with the Center for Analysis of Sustainable Agro-ecological Systems.
But while the trees might survive these ups and downs, the olives — and their valuable juice — suffer. “What the tree requires is some chilling during the winter,” Ponti says. “If it doesn’t receive a certain amount of hours below a certain temperature, it is not going to bear any fruit the following season.” Conversely, if, in the middle of winter, the temperature jumps unexpectedly, the tree can begin to bloom as if spring has arrived. When temperatures go back down, the blossoms — which would one day have turned into fruit and new shoots — are destroyed. Even when winter brings no surprises, a cold shock in early spring can destroy the delicate blossoms.
Olive trees are alternate bearing, with a plentiful harvest year usually followed by a smaller one. Farmers know to anticipate this cycle, but now the successful harvests are sometimes almost as meager as the predictably small ones. As the reliability of weather patterns shifts globally, harvest seasons have become unpredictable. “It can be super dry, and then your olives shrivel up,” says Mapes. They’ll still take these olives to the mill, hopeful that the gnarled fruit surprises them with bright, grassy oil.
Another climate change-driven factor often destroys the fruit outright: pests. Ponti remembers 2014 as “the black year of olives” in Italy. Wherever you looked, olive trees had been ravaged by a tiny, ferocious beast — Bactrocera oleae, or the olive fruit fly. “There were no olives left on trees,” he says. The fly in question “pierces the olive fruit, burrows in and lays eggs inside, and can ruin the whole harvest. Up to 100 percent damage,” says Ponti.
“They compromise our production every year now,” says Morisani.
Just like the olive trees they feed on, these flies are being affected by a changing climate. “Temperature and humidity affect both the plant and the insect, and they are affected in different ways,” says Ponti, noting that the olive fruit-fly problem extends far beyond Italy. One study, which Ponti co-authored in 2009, predicted that in California and Arizona, the flies will continue to thrive along the southern coast, where temperatures are mild and provide an ideal breeding ground, while they’ll be pushed out of California’s Central Valley and more desertous regions by scorching heat. As weather intensifies in Italy, the flies will be able to move into the warming northern regions, which were once too cold for them to reproduce, and out of the warmer regions in the south.
In 2014, Ponti co-authored another paper, this one finding that varying yields and fly infestation levels will result in “economic winners and losers” as changing weather patterns intensify. The model predicts that fly abundance will be highest in “mild coastal areas of southern Europe and North Africa” while the lowest populations will be present in areas with colder winter weather, like in high-elevation areas of Europe. “Across a large landscape like the Mediterranean Basin, the climate is made of a daily pattern of weather,” Ponti says. “It’s very variable.”
The future of olive oil
While Morisani and Mapes lose sleep over unexpected frosts in Le Castella, farmers in California fear wildfires, and those in parts of Greece suffer the consequences of scorching heat waves. Across the map, a changing climate creates thousands of uniquely terrifying challenges for farmers. The 2014 study that Ponti worked on predicted that warming of the climate will not have a dramatic impact on the amount of olive oil being produced in the Mediterranean Basin, with certain areas minimally affected and some even seeing improved growing conditions, but other regions will suffer terribly.
Slowly but surely, olive trees will start thriving in places they once did not, like Northern Italy, where the continental climate is becoming hospitable. On another plot of land, where branches once burst with blooms, the trees might stand bare as skeletons, not receiving the winter temperatures they need to flower. This shift is going to take time, “because the life cycle of an olive grove is multi-decades. But I’ve seen it occurring,” says Ponti. “It’s not something hypothetical.”
The study predicted that land where olives are grown will see decline in area by “18% for the Iberian Peninsula, 21% for Italy and France, 23% for Greece, Turkey, and the Balkans, 2% for North Africa, and 80% for the Middle East.” In Spain, researchers studying the seven most productive olive varieties in Andalusia predicted that by the end of the century, there will be less arable land for six of the seven species, as well as for wild olives. For growers in these impacted areas, who have tended to olive trees for generations and have no other source of income, these forecasts spell disaster.
To better react to all the unknowns, olive farmers including Mapes and Morisani turn to scientists, who have dedicated themselves to making models and information-based solutions accessible to farmers on the ground. Much of Ponti’s work is in collaboration with MED-GOLD, a project aimed at translating climate data and predictions into actionable suggestions for farmers growing durum wheat, grapes, and olives. “Any farmer has a limited amount of resources,” Ponti says. Scientists like Ponti help farmers decide how to use their resources, advising them on practices including soil management, pruning, the use of pesticides to manage pests, and the planting of cover crops between their trees.
But of course, not all farmers have the financial means to be as agile and adaptive as climate change demands. For small farm owners, like Morisani’s neighbors in Le Castella, who have tended to the same few trees for generations, consulting with scientists and soil experts, researching tree varieties, and changing planting and harvesting seasons might not be an option. Some of these small farmers, disconnected from technology and without ample resources, will be left struggling season to season as larger farms transform their operations.
For the largest growers, changing climate conditions have already fundamentally altered how business must be done. Such is the case for California Olive Ranch, America’s largest olive oil producer. In California, where drought and wildfires have ravaged the landscape in recent years, relying solely on local production is no longer an option if the business is to grow and continue meeting demand.
Michael Fox, the company’s CEO, remembers the “crop disaster” of 2018. “We produced less than a third of what we thought we were going to produce. And the industry was desperate; you had people that didn’t even produce oil that year.” California Olive Ranch is experiencing similar conditions this growing season. What was supposed to be a “down year” for the alternate-bearing crop has turned out to be a “very down year,” as he puts it. “In February [of 2020], the temperature spiked to 70 degrees or 80 degrees, and then quickly dropped a couple weeks later. So the trees woke up in February, and in March and April started blooming. And then we had a frost event, and frost will destroy the trees.”
Relentless drought and water shortages are one result of California’s changing climate. On California Olive Ranch’s properties, Fox says receding well levels have forced them to drill further down to find water. Along with the drying ground and cloudless skies is a third threat that now looms large nearly every year in California: fire. In 2018, the Camp Fire — the deadliest wildfire in the state’s history — ripped through the town of Paradise. The fire didn’t touch the company’s trees, 30 miles away, but “we have a lot of employees that lived in Paradise, so that was an emotional experience,” says Fox. “And we try to protect the ranches as much as we can, but it’s also tough working conditions with all that smoke. Workers that are out there, they have to wear heavy-duty masks, because that wildfire season is leading right up into our harvest.” In 2020, the North Complex fires, which scorched 300,000 acres of land, threatened the health of the ranch’s employees, and the olive trees, once again.
After the terrible harvest and devastating fires of 2018, California Olive Ranch decided that relying on California’s climate to produce a consistently good harvest was no longer realistic. So the company, whose branding and name focuses on California, started sourcing oil from partnered farms globally. “Going out of stock would have been devastating to our company,” says Fox. “We sell more olive oil under California Olive Ranch than the entire state produces. And so we have to be able to flex, and we need to protect ourselves from bad years.” The olive oil in these “Global Blend” bottles comes from Argentina, Chile, Portugal, and yes, California, too. Though Fox reasons that this global blend is the only way the company can meet the needs of an American consumer base, and that it has been able to ensure continuously high quality in its international sourcing, initial reactions were mixed. When it comes to much of the olive oil stocked on supermarket shelves, provenance and quality can be murky, and some consumers, assuming the California company’s oil was harvested locally, felt misled. Since 2018, the packaging of these global blends has become more transparent, with the countries of origin printed clearly — albeit in small print — on the front of each bottle.
The need to source globally is a sign of just how large California Olive Ranch is, and of the enormous demand it’s meeting. But it also points to the difficulty of reliably sourcing olives in an unpredictable climate and meeting the expectations of consumers who value the provenance and locality of the oil they use to fry their eggs and dress their salad. As large farms struggle to strike the right balance, some smaller farmers risk being wiped out entirely.
Weathering the storm
Home cooks unconcerned with the provenance of their olive oil might not notice much change in the coming years. They can rest easy knowing that, for now, even in a shifting climate, as demand increases and global olive oil production declines, there is still plenty of the good stuff to be found on shelves. Plenty for that dressing, the marinade, for taking shots with apple cider vinegar in quick succession — if that’s what you’re into.
But if the implications of a changing climate aren’t yet threatening the home cook and their precious oil, farmers and producers face a very different reality. Assessing the changes in yield, in weather conditions, in the frequency of wildfires and rainfall is a daily part of life for olive growers.
From their groves in Le Castella, Morisani and Mapes are in constant contact with nearby scientists, who help guide their decisions as they navigate their path forward. The couple recently erected a barrier on their property to create a microclimate, which they hope will protect from the freezing wind that whips through and batters their trees. When they found a source of water running beneath their trees, Mapes and Morisani redirected the flow to a well in preparation for the inevitable dry spells. Some days the challenges feel insurmountable, but the pair stay hopeful as they set their sights on expanding their operation. Though they’re small in comparison to some of the competition, the quality of their oil hasn’t gone unnoticed — in 2020, EXAU was one of Oprah’s favorite things. The company is growing so fast that Mapes says it can feel “out of control.”
Despite it all, Mapes and Morisani remain optimistic about the future of olive oil. “No matter where you go, you’re going to have problems, but there are options. You just have to stay agile and just be really nimble,” says Mapes. “People are like, ‘I want to protect the environment.’ And I’m like, ‘You should plant an olive tree.’”
Yadi Liu is an award-winning visual artist who is passionate about finding the optimum balance between illustration and modern art.
Fact checked by Olivia Exstrum
Copy edited by Emma Alpern