Drought tests resilience of Spanish olive groves and farmers

QUESADA, Spain (AP) — An extremely hot, dry summer that shrank reservoirs and sparked wildfires now threatens the heartiest of Spain’s major crops: the olives that make the European country the world’s largest producer and exporter of the small green fruits that are pressed into golden oil.

Industry experts and authorities predict that the Spanish olive crop in the fall will be nearly half the size of last year’s, another victim of global weather changes caused by climate change.

“I’m 57 years old and I’ve never seen a year like this,” said farmer Juan Antonio Delgado as he walked past his rows of olive trees in the southeastern city of Quesada. “My intention is to keep it going for as long as possible, but if the costs go beyond what I earn from production, we’re all out of work.”

High temperatures in May killed many of the blossoms on the olive trees in Spanish orchards. Those that survived produced fruits that were small and thin due to not enough water. Slightly less moisture may even yield better olive oil, but the recent drought is getting too much for them.

This year was the third driest in Spain since records began in 1964. The Mediterranean country also had its hottest summer on record.

Spain’s 350,000 olive farmers typically harvest their crops in early October, before they are fully ripe, to produce the olive oil. But because his olives were still too small to pick, Delgado left most of the fruit on his trees, hoping for rain. No luck so far.

If the desired rain does not come soon, the country will produce almost half as many olives as last year, according to the Spanish Minister of Agriculture.

“Our forecast for this crop season is notoriously low,” Agriculture Secretary Luis Planas told The Associated Press. “The ministry predicts it won’t even reach 800,000 tons (882,000 US tons),” compared to 1.47 million tons (1.62 million US tons) in 2021.

Olive trees cover 2.7 million hectares (6.8 million acres) of Spanish soil, 37% of which are in the province of Jaén, known for its “sea of ​​olives” and where Delgado farms.

On average, Spain produces more than three times as many olives as Italy and Greece, which also have smaller yields.

According to the Committee of Professional Agricultural Organizations and the General Confederation of Agricultural Cooperatives, olive oil production in the European Union as a whole is expected to fall drastically compared to last year.

The European agricultural organizations, known by the abbreviations COPA and COGECA, warned in September that drought and high temperatures could reduce yields by 35%. The two groups called the situation in Spain “particularly worrying”.

The smaller harvest drives up prices, says Italian olive oil producer Filippo Berio. The company said the price of European olives for extra virgin oil has risen from EUR 500 per tonne ($495) to EUR 4,985 ($4,938) per tonne.

In addition to warmer-than-normal weather, the drought is affecting Spanish olives in other ways. Agricultural practices consultant Antonio Bernal witnesses the return of long-forgotten diseases during his visits to Quesada. He believes that milder winters help fungi multiply.

Bernal also fears that the most widespread olive variety grown in Jaén will not be able to adapt to the rapidly changing climate.

“The solution is to stop climate change: olive groves cannot adapt at a pace to such a rapid change,” Bernal said.

Besides being the universal symbol of peace, the olive branch is a symbol of the Mediterranean. Plato is said to have spread his wisdom under an olive tree and the widespread cultivation of the olive in Spain dates back to the Romans.

When it became too dry for orange and lemon trees, olive trees were counted on to keep blooming. The short, gnarled trees cling to dry, rocky ground and don’t seem to mind when the sun goes down. Under scorching afternoon conditions, microscopic pores on their leaves close to reduce water loss.

“For Jaén, the olive was our culture, our way of surviving and feeding our families,” says olive farmer Manuel García.

But even the firm olive has limits. Today, the fruit represents the challenges communities face in a hotter, drier world.

Researcher Virginia Hernández is an olive expert at the Institute of Natural Resources and Agrobiology in Seville, Spain. She studies how to adapt irrigation practices to drought, especially the point where ‘sub-optimal’ amounts of water can be used to promote sustainability.

With less rain likely to become a norm, sparing water use is critical, Hernández said. She thinks that more intelligent use of high-tech irrigation systems combined with more drought-resistant tree species could save the industry as the planet warms.

According to climate experts, the Mediterranean Sea is expected to become one of the fastest warming regions in the world in the coming years. The trick is to convince farmers that reducing their production today could save their livelihoods tomorrow, the kind of adaptability olives are particularly adept at, Hernández said.

“The truth is that the olive is the paradigmatic species when it comes to withstanding a lack of water,” she said. ‘I can think of no other as strong as the olive. … It knows how to suffer.”

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Joseph Wilson reported from Barcelona, ​​Spain. Photojournalist Bernat Armangue and video journalist Iain Sullivan contributed from Quesada.

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