Drought is testing the resilience of Spain’s olive groves and farmers

QUESADA, Spain (AP) — An exceptionally hot, dry summer that shrunk reservoirs and sparked wildfires now threatens the heartiest of Spain’s staple crops: olives that make the European country the world’s leading producer and exporter of the tiny green of fruit pressed into golden oil.

Industry experts and authorities predict Spain’s fall olive harvest will be almost half of last year’s, another casualty 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 town of Quesada. “My intention is to continue as long as I can, but when the cost rises above what I make from the production, we will all be out of a job.”

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

This year was Spain’s third driest since records began in 1964. The Mediterranean country also had 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 weak to pick, Delgado left most of the fruit on his trees, hoping for rain. So far, no luck.

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

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

Olive trees cover 2.7 million hectares (6.8 million acres) of Spain’s territory, with a full 37% of this in the province of Jaén, which is known for its “sea of ​​olives” and where Delgado is farmed.

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

Olive oil production across the European Union is forecast to fall sharply compared to 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 yields could drop by 35% due to drought and high temperatures. The two groups described the situation in Spain as “particularly worrying”.

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

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

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

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

Besides the olive branch being the universal symbol of peace, the olive is a symbol of the Mediterranean. Plato is said to have imparted 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 olives were counted on to continue to thrive. The short, gnarled trees cling to dry, rocky ground and don’t seem to mind when the sun goes down. Under harsh midday conditions, the tiny pores in their leaves close to reduce water loss.

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

However, even the hearty olive has limits. These days, the fruit represents the challenges facing communities in a hotter and drier world.

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

As less rain is likely to become the norm, using water sparingly is critical, Hernández said. He believes a 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 most warming regions of the world in the coming years. The trick is convincing farmers that reducing their production today can save their livelihood tomorrow, the kind of adaptability olives are particularly capable of, Hernández said.

“The truth is that the olive tree is the exemplary species when it comes to resisting water scarcity,” he said. “I can think of no one else who can endure like the olive tree. … He knows how to suffer.”

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

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