December 31, 2002
Is Big or Small Better for Olive Ranchers?
While farming is increasingly efficient with greater yields per acre, it contributes less and less proportionally to the GNP, thereby losing the attention of government agencies and the general public. To survive, larger farms are consolidating to benefit from economies of scale and smaller farmers are finding "day jobs" in town to support their farming habit. These trends are affecting the environment and reducing our choice of basic foods. They also generate questions concerning olive farming here in the U.S. Should we support smaller boutique orchards with a variety of cultivars, organic methods and a lower environmental impact, or the large monoculture olive farms which are more efficient and can generate a profit and tax revenues?
In a new book "American Agriculture in the Twentieth Century", author Bruce l. Gardner reports that 80% of all U.S. farms in the late 1990s had annual sales of less than $100,000. In this group, typically 90% of their household income came from off-farm sources. For the vast majority of farmers, farming is becoming a hobby, and an expensive one at times.
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal reports that high school kids in most farming communities are actively discouraged from considering starting their own farms or taking over the family farm. Hours are long, equipment prices are stratospheric and credit is unavailable to new farmers. Instead, agro-tech jobs are available with large farm conglomerates.
Large, maximally intensive farms feed the world and are more efficient in many ways than the small farm. When farming becomes big business, it behooves the operation to plant newer varieties with greater yield, disease or herbicide resistance, longer shelf life and a more attractive shape or color. But the perfect looking apple or tomato doesn't always taste the best. While efficient large farms may free up land for nature conservation, the cost may be agricultural waste runoff and pollution of aquifers.
In their book "The small farm as natural habitat", Dana L Jackson and Laura L. Jackson argue that small family farms that raise animals in integrated rotational grazing systems with less reliance on corn and soybeans can provide valuable natural habitat. Though small farms are not as efficient and take more land, the land may be in better shape and offer itself as habitat for local plants and animals.
Do we as a society want the government to encourage large monoculture farms to maximize output per acre which reduces total acreage in farming and increases agricultural tax and export revenue, or encourage small farms with diverse, possibly heritage crops and lower impact to the environment?
In California olive farms oriented toward olive oil have traditionally been boutique operations. Topography and small size limit mechanized pruning and picking. Many owners are retired or have had other incomes, allowing them to experiment with expensive small batch pressing and organic farming methods. Olive orchards have been planted in areas with expensive real estate such as Napa and Sonoma.
Appellation has been stressed over yield or price. Emphasis from university farming experts has been on expensive premium oil varieties, specifically Tuscan, instead of fast growing, high yield dwarf clones which can deliver an inexpensive oil and farm profits.
California Olive Ranch is one of the first large olive oil orchards planted on the traditional large scale agribusiness model found in Spain and Italy. It remains to be seen whether the public, the COOC and state agricultural officers will embrace and encourage this model, as Australia and Chile have done, or will encourage the small farmer.