Sonoma County olive growers are bracing for a disastrous harvest, one that could wipe out the supply of fresh local olive oil.
The late-season rains of 2011 drenched the North Coast about the same time olive trees were blooming, killing the pollination process and leaving trees with little to no fruit. Some growers are estimating that the small, niche crop will be a tenth of normal size.
“We knew as soon as the weather report said it was going to rain that we were going to have trouble,” said Ridgley Evers, co-owner of DaVero, a high-quality olive oil producer in Healdsburg.
“But we didn't know how much trouble we were in until we saw how much rain we got,” he said.
That was three months ago. Now, the proof of what Evers has described as a slow-moving train wreck is illustrated by the bare branches of his Tuscany-bred olive trees.
“Economically, this is a full-on disaster,” he said.
Even before the late rains, growers knew it wouldn't be the best harvest for Sonoma County. Olives are an alternate bearing crop, and this was supposed to be a down year.
But the moisture was a nail in the coffin for this year's harvest.
Paul Vossen, a farm advisor with the University of California Cooperative Extension, said that in an average low-yield year olive orchards produce 50 to 60 percent less.
“We have some places where they have almost nothing,” said Vossen.
Unlike some plants and flowers, olives are pollinated by the wind, not insects. Sonoma County olive trees bloomed in late May and early June, when the North Coast was being hit by one storm after another.
High humidity alone will cause the fine pollen produced by olive trees to bind together, hindering its ability to travel through the air for cross pollination. With rain, pollen simply clumps together and doesn't go anywhere.
Olive production in Sonoma County is tiny compared to wine grapes and apples, according to the 2010 county crop report. That year there were 567 olive olive orchards in the county, 465 of which bore fruit for a total raw crop value of $176,100.