Farmers hope to strike gold with olives
Don Barioni Jr. stands in his olive orchard in Niland. (JOSELITO VILLERO PHOTO / April 17, 2013)
Olives are ideally suited for the Imperial Valley’s desert climate, said Don Barioni Jr., listing some of the crop’s desirable traits.
They are pest and disease-tolerant, and use less than half as much water as other desert crops, said the fourth-generation Imperial Valley farmer.
Barioni has been growing olives for olive oil for two years. His orchard stretches for hundreds of acres on marginal land just north of Niland.
Although he grows citrus fruits and other crops, he is clearly excited about the impact that olives can have on the Imperial Valley.
While one acre of desert lemons typically requires five to six acre-feet of water per year, he said, two to three acre-feet of water is sufficient for one acre of olives.
Startup costs are also favorable, he said. An orchard will typically become productive in its second year, and will break even or turn a profit in its fifth year.
“We can produce five to six tons of fruit per acre at maturity. That becomes 40 to 60 gallons (of olive oil) per ton,” Barioni said.
A 250 milliliter to 375 milliliter bottle of extra virgin olive oil typically retails for $15 to $25.
And with just 1 percent of the olive oil consumed in the United States produced here, the market for healthy, high-quality, locally-produced olive oil is wide open.
Christian Lydick, a lifelong Imperial Valley agricultural supplier, had an epiphany while researching the viability of the olive crop for the Imperial Valley.
“I had toured the state and visited every nursery that produces live olive trees and discovered several thousand acres in Northern California recently planted and torn out because they had record-low temperatures and suffered damage,” he said, recounting his research into the crop.
“That fact sealed the deal that the future of the olive industry is in Southern California.”
County officials were so impressed with the growth opportunities that olives represent that they asked Lydick to share his data with the Imperial County Planning Commission in October.
“It’s a whole new ag product we haven’t dreamed about before,” said Rudy Schaffner, Planning Commission chairman.
“We are always looking for a new product to sell outside the Valley to bring income from outside the Valley into the Valley.”
To meet anticipated demand, Lydick and a group of investors recently formed Imperial Valley Olive. They plan to sell olive trees to area farmers and provide grower services. And, because olives are a new crop for the Imperial Valley, Lydick’s firm is in the process of establishing test plots at the University of California Desert Research & Extension Center in El Centro.
Barioni is also betting that other Imperial Valley farmers will begin growing olives. His plans are ambitious.
He and his partners in Beachline Citrus have partnered with Temecula Olive to develop an olive mill to accommodate their crops and other’s.
“We encourage other olive oil growers,” Barioni said. “There is enough room for other oil producers.”
Once operational, Imperial California Olive Mill will be a vertically-integrated olive oil production facility that offers milling and bottling services. Although it is still under development, it will be located in Imperial, Barioni said. He hopes it will open in time for the November harvest.
Massive growth potential and ambitious plans aside, olive production is still miniscule compared to Imperial Valley heavyweights like alfalfa and wheat. The Imperial Irrigation District’s April 11 crop acreage report does not list olives individually, nor does the county’s field crops report.
“There’s still nothing on our crop report yet,” said Imperial County Agricultural Commissioner Connie Valenzuela.
Olives are likely included with other miscellaneous crops like figs, mandarins and tangelos, crops too small to be counted individually, she added.
Small start aside, Barioni sees olives as a sustainable and premium replacement of the cotton industry in the Imperial Valley.
“Olive oil could fill the void of the cotton industry in growing and processing,” he said.
Staff Writer Antoine Abou-Diwan can be reached at 760-337-3454 or firstname.lastname@example.org