On his small farm in Umbria, in central Italy, Fausto Venturi glides his fingers along the slender branches of one of his olive trees. At this time of year – about two months before the start of the harvest – the branches should be full of ripening Moraiolo olives, the small, round, green fruit indigenous to Umbria and Tuscany that is prized for making high-quality, emerald-green virgin olive oil.
On this particular tree, and more than a few others on his property, there are no olives. Not one. “Lots of trees in the area are barren this year,” he tells me. “The harvest will be down by at least half, maybe two-thirds.”
The property my family rents a few kilometres away, with some 300 olive trees spread over rolling hills, is in a similar state, perhaps worse. Every second tree has few or no ripening olives. Each year, Mr. Venturi and one or two colleagues pick the olives from our trees with pneumatic rakes and use a tractor to haul them to the local olive presses, where they are churned into liquid. He says our trees may yield only a third as much as last year. And last year’s harvest was down by about half from 2021.
Mr. Venturi, 44, and the other farmers near Spoleto, a medieval gem of a city and a UNESCO heritage site, face a disastrous, money-losing harvest. Oil prices will go up – they are soaring to record levels in several Mediterranean countries as severe shortages develop – but not to the point that they will cover the expected plunge in production.
In recent years, Mr. Venturi and thousands of other olive farmers throughout Italy have rarely seen a normal harvest, as the climate becomes more erratic and extreme. It seems that almost every growing season is hit by too much rain or heat, or not enough rain or heat, or nasty diseases such as the Xylella fastidiosa bacterium that has killed millions of trees in southern areas such as Puglia, traditionally one of the world’s most productive olive regions.
The culprit this year in Umbria – less so in other parts of Italy, where olive yields are expected to remain largely unchanged over last year – was heavy rain during the trees’ flowering period in May and June. The rain wrecked many of the trees’ pollination cycles. The trees themselves may look healthy, with their bewitching silver-green leaves glinting in the sun. But no pollination means no olives. “We presume it’s climate change, too much rain,” Mr. Venturi says. “Here in Umbria, the rain was 100 per cent of the problem this year, not the heat.”
Olive-growing problems are no longer unusual in Italy – or the rest of the Mediterranean – as weather patterns change.
The International Olive Council, an intergovernmental organization based in Spain that produces data on global production, trade and prices, reported that Italy – the second-biggest producer after Spain – has made an average of 275,000 tonnes of oil a year in the past five years, down from 345,000 in the previous five years. The waning production means Italy is scouring the Mediterranean for imports as prices climb relentlessly. In part, Tunisian production has come to the rescue.
Spain is in even worse shape because of the savage drought in the Western Mediterranean, which has had persistently low rainfall for more than a year and temperatures as much as four degrees Celsius above normal in the spring. A May report by the European Commission’s Copernicus Programme said that “both in northern Africa and in the Iberian Peninsula [Spain and Portugal], severe impacts on crops have been reported, with reduced and delayed sowing and well below average yield forecast.”
In the last harvest, Spain produced only 660,000 tonnes of oil, about half its usual output and the smallest figure in almost a decade, as trees shed fruit to preserve moisture. The olive council predicts that Spanish production will rebound this year by 28 per cent, to 850,000 tonnes – still well below the 1.3 million tonnes of a typical year.
The shortages and soaring prices in Southern Europe are hurting families. In Spain, Italy, Greece and other Mediterranean countries, olive oil is a way of life – has been for thousands of years. The Greeks believed the goddess Athena created the olive tree, and Greek poet Homer called it “liquid gold.” Oil production and exports became economic mainstays of the Roman empire. The Romans devised oil classifications based on quality and even operated an oil commodity exchange, the arca olearia.
Today, virgin olive oil remains an essential part of the Mediterranean diet. The North American Olive Oil Association says Greeks are the most fanatic, with an average annual consumption of 24 litres per person. Spaniards are next, at 15 litres, followed by Italians at 14 (my family rarely uses butter and we consume about one litre every two weeks). The Canadian average is 1.5 litres, and Americans consume only about one, but consumption is rising throughout North America as the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet become better known and butter loses favour.
Oil World, the German publication that tracks the edible oils industry, calls the olive oil supply outlook “critical” because of waning production in Spain and Italy. Families in those countries and Greece consider current prices obscene by historical standards.
In July the olive council said that in Bari – the hub of the Southern Italian oil industry – the price of extra virgin olive oil reached €705 per 100 kilograms, up 62 per cent over the previous crop year. In Chania, Greece, the price was €570, up 73 per cent. In Jaén, Spain, it was €620, up 87 per cent.
Bloomberg recently reported that, in general, the price of a tonne of olive oil is now more than 10 times that of a tonne of crude oil. In 2019, the year before the pandemic, the ratio was less than five times.
In Umbria, Mr. Venturi expects the price of his oil to climb substantially this year – last year he sold his hard-earned output from 600 trees for €12 a litre, up from €11 in 2021 – but won’t know the actual price until the harvest starts in October. What’s certain is that his family will come first when the diminished output arrives from the olive presses. In the last harvest, I was able to buy 27 litres of his finest. “From this harvest, you will be lucky to get 10,” he tells me. “Maybe.”