December 11, 2003
The first high density olive orchard in the San Joaquin Valley – 13,000 olive trees, were planted at California State University, Fresno.
Olint magazine interviewed officer Gino Favagrossa at the university for more details:
Olint: Gino, can you please describe your training and experience, as well as your position at CSU, Fresno?
G. Favagrossa: My family is originally Italian. My whole life I have been involved with agriculture. I have been at Fresno State for almost 20 years. Initially I worked for the viticulture program for 10 years, then for the programs in pitted fruits, citrus, walnut, almond, and pistachio. I graduated from Fresno State in Agricultural Business and then worked on vineyard, cotton, and corn cultivation. Later I received my Masters degree in Business Administration. Nowadays I am the technical officer at the University Farm Laboratory, and I also direct its marketing and sales.
Olint: What are the objectives of the University Farm Laboratory?
G. Favagrossa: As part of the California State University system, our school has the privilege of being located at the center of the San Joaquin Valley, the most fertile area in our nation and probably in the world. For that reason the main objective of Fresno State University Farm Laboratory is to educate the new generation of production managers, farmers, and agricultural workers from a practical point of view, with an emphasis on production. We believe that, in order to educate our students, we must have experimental fields that are economically viable and must generate income to sustain this type of practical education. This is why we have decided to dedicate 22 acres to high density olive cultivation.
Olint: What is your spacing and what varieties are you using?
G. Favagrossa: Spacing is 6 by 12 feet, the standard for vineyards in our area, especially for raisin vineyards. This affords us easy conversion between our vineyards and this type of high density plantation for olive oil production. Our main olive variety is Arbequina clone I-18, but we have some Arbosana clone I-43 and Koroneiki I-38 as well.
Olint: What prospects does the vineyard have in California at this time?
G. Favagrossa: It’s terrible! The current situation is very bad and it looks like that will last a long time. Two years ago, before learning about the high density olive cultivation system, my own family uprooted 25 acres of vineyards in order to plant almonds. In the last year I have witnessed more vineyards disappear than in the last 30 years of my life. Renowned wine production areas like Napa and Sonoma are managing to stay afloat in this market of overproduction. But the San Joaquin Valley, and in general California’s central valley, are suffering the impact of great worldwide overproduction.
Olint: What do you think about high density olive cultivation as a viable alternative for farmers in your area?
G. Favagrossa: I think it has great potential. I consider that, because this is a new product, most producers, especially small ones with limited economic capacity and generally a conservative stance, are waiting to have contracts or other sales guarantees before committing to this type of plantations. They want to focus exclusively on the process of production, the way most other industries work, for example the walnut and almond industries.
But I also believe that a group of organizations is going to emerge that, in order to maximize profits, will not only will produce olives, but also process them and ultimately reach the final consumer with high quality olive oil. These will be companies with commercial networks and similar products in the market, such as is the case with some wineries or other agro alimentary companies.
Today in the United States there is a tendency towards improving eating behaviors, and here olive oil can have a very important role. The popularity and proliferation of supermarkets such as Trader Joe’s confirm this tendency. Consumption of seed oils is decreasing and it is being replaced with olive oil.
You just have to observe the change in the American consumer in the last 20 years with respect to wine, which caused the California wine industry to explode.
G. Favagrossa: I think that product differentiation, locally produced in California and not coming from Europe, is going to be a decisive factor for this industry to take off. Besides, I believe that a favorable Euro-Dollar exchange rate, combined with the end of European Union subsidies to oil production, will help the local industry to be competitive with respect to imported oils.
I also think that when this industry starts to emerge, it will have a domino effect and will grow exponentially. We are probably talking about a period of two or three years, but it is difficult to quantify at this time.
One thing is for sure: olive oil consumption will continue to grow. Just 10% of what the United States imports would be a huge production for California.
Olint: What do you think about the high degree of mechanization in this type of plantations?
G. Favagrossa: I think it is the only way to success! It was the main motivation for our high density plantation. I think mechanization is indispensable for the future of agriculture. Otherwise it could happen as in other sectors of our fruit industry, where labor amounts to 50% or more of total costs. That situation is devastating California’s fruit industry. On the other hand our land has a desert climate; therefore another important factor is the efficient use of water with low-consumption trees, like the olive, and more advanced irrigation methods like dripping.
Even the raisin industry is changing its pruning practices, so that continuous harvesting machines can be used. Profit margins are so narrow that, if the farmer can reduce harvesting costs by $200, that will probably be his net profit per acre.
With this olive system, initially during the first three years the process is more costly, but once the plantation has been established costs are minimal. Another important factor is the improvement in the quality of the final product, since harvesting the olive quickly and cleanly allows its processing in a short period of time, resulting in an enormous improvement in the quality of olive oil.