Drought is testing the resilience of Spanish olive groves and farmers

QUESADA, Spain (AP) — An extremely hot and dry summer that has shrunk reservoirs and sparked forest fires now threatens the most important of Spain’s staple crops: the olives that make the European country the world’s leading producer and exporter of the tiny green fruits that are pressed in golden oil.

Industry experts and authorities predict Spain’s fall olive harvest will be nearly half of last year’s, another casualty of global weather changes caused by climate change.

“I’m 57 and I’ve never seen a year like this,” farmer Juan Antonio Delgado said as he walked past his rows of olive trees in the southeastern town of Quesada. “My intention is to hold on as long as possible, but when the costs exceed what I earn from production, we will all be out of work.”

High temperatures in May killed many flowers on olive trees in Spanish orchards. Those that survived produced small, thin fruits due to lack of water. A little less humidity may actually produce better olive oil, but the recent drought is proving too much for them.

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

Spain’s 350,000 olive growers typically harvest their crops in early October, before they are fully ripe, in order to produce olive oil. But with his olives still too stunted to pick, Delgado left most of the fruit on his trees, hoping for rain. So far, no luck.

If the desired rain does not arrive soon, the country will produce nearly half as many olives as last year, according to Spain’s agriculture minister.

“Our forecast for this harvest season is notoriously low,” Agriculture Minister Luis Planas told The Associated Press. “The ministry predicts that it will not even reach 800,000 tonnes (882,000 US tonnes),” down from 1.47 million tonnes (1.62 million US tonnes) in 2021.

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

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

Olive oil production across the European Union is set to drop drastically from last year, according to the Committee of Professional Agricultural Organizations and the General Confederation of Agricultural Cooperatives,

European agricultural organisations, known by the acronyms COPA and COGECA, warned in September that yield could fall by 35% due to drought and high temperatures. Both groups described the situation in Spain as “particularly worrying”.

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

In addition to warmer than usual weather, the drought is affecting Spanish olives in other ways. Farming methods consultant Antonio Bernal sees the return of long-forgotten diseases during his visits to Quesada. He thinks that milder winters favor the proliferation of fungi.

Bernal also fears that the most common olive variety grown in Jaén may not be able to adapt to such rapid climate change.

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

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

When it got too dry for the orange and lemon trees, the olive trees were counted on to continue to thrive. The short, gnarled trees cling to the dry, rocky ground and don’t seem to mind the sun. In scorching midday conditions, the microscopic pores in their leaves close to reduce water loss.

“For Jaén, the olive has been our culture, our way of subsisting and feeding our families,” said olive grower Manuel García.

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

Researcher Virginia Hernández is an olive expert based at the Institute of Natural Resources and Agrobiology in Seville, Spain. She studies how to adapt irrigation practices to drought, in particular the extent to which “sub-optimal” amounts of water can be used to promote sustainability.

With less rain likely to become the norm, using water sparingly is key, Hernández said. She thinks smarter use of high-tech irrigation systems combined with more drought-tolerant tree varieties could save the industry as the planet warms.

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

“The truth is that the olive tree is the paradigmatic species when it comes to resisting lack of water,” she said. “I can’t think of another that can hold like the olive. … He knows how to suffer.

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

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