Olive harvest reaches 20-year low

Once prominent crop in Tulare County and California has seen an 82% decline since 2003

TULARE COUNTY – Olives are the pits this year after a decrease in acreage and production capped a 20-year downward slide for a once prominent crop for Tulare County and the state.

USDA predicts California will only produce 20,000 tons this year, a 52% drop from 46,000 tons last year. That’s an 82% decline since 2003, when California harvested 115,000 tons. Small farms in Tulare County used to be the center of the state’s olive production with about 16,000 acres in 2003 but less than 8,000 acres remain active olive groves in the county today 

Canneries used to populate small towns in California, like Lindsay, and now the company that bought out the Lindsay Olive brand, Bell Carter near Walnut Creek, Calif., has sold out to a Spanish processor.

Raisins production shrivels

California raisins are not dancing any more as the size of the crop has shriveled to a third of what it was two decades ago.

The California raisin crop peaked in 2000 at 280,000 acres but now is less than half that. As of 2021 it was down to 138,000 acres and perhaps even less this year. Fresno County lost nearly 5,000 acres from 2020 to 2021 with growers replanting with an alternate crop

The decline in acreage may be beneficial to the per-ton price growers who still have product as food processors use US-grown California raisins instead of product from Turkey or elsewhere. California tonnage was three times larger just two decades ago. 

USDA reports the 2021 raisin crop reached 93,120 tons at an average price of $1,696 per ton. Harvey Singh, Chairman of the Raisin Bargaining Association (RBA),  said he hopes growers can get $2,000 a ton this year but prices won’t be finalized for a few weeks. The RBA’s 500 members represent about 25% of the raisin industry. Most of the nation’s raisins are grown famously within a 60-mile radius of Fresno.

Singh says this years’ crop was reduced by “terrible heat” that affected quality, in turn limiting their uses, as well as rain, which can affect the drying of the fruit, and the drought, which has continued to affect plantings and is driving up the price of water. 

Consumer demand is down as well. Singh points out that people are not eating the amount of raisins that they used to. The primary user is still the bakery industry. Raisins in morning cereals are made up of a mix of California and foreign raisins that are cheaper, he said.

Raisins may be less popular in part due to the explosion of  more varieties of fruit available for Americans year-round including the rising tide of produce imports. Consumers have only so much room in their refrigerators or their stomachs and grocers have only so much room in their produce aisles.

Raisin production was once one of the most labor-intensive crop activities in North America, needing 40,000 to 50,000 workers for a typical six-week harvest, cutting bunches of green grapes, and laying them down to dry in the sun on paper trays. Newer varieties dry on-the-vine reducing labor requirements.

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