Italian Olive Groves Suffering Heavy Toll From Winter Freeze

Associated Press

The hillsides in Italy, the Mediterranean’s largest olive oil producer, are usually dotted with groves of silvery green olive trees at this time of year. This summer, however, the landscape has transformed.

An unusual freeze last winter has reduced large numbers of olive groves in the central regions of Tuscany, Umbria and Lazio--famed for the production of high-quality, untreated, “extra virgin” olive oil--to spindly skeletons of dry and dead trees this summer.

Turning a problem into a crisis is the fact that it takes about a decade for new trees to bear fruit. Many growers and farm workers fear that they may have to leave the land to find work elsewhere.


“How can somebody live without an income for 10 years?” said Armando Franceschelli, president of Coltivatori Diretti of Siena, an olive producers organization.

“Especially in already depressed areas, where there are old trees and they use traditional methods, there may not be another way out than abandoning the fields.”

“I can’t sleep at night,” said Guiliano Redditi, owner of a small olive farm north of Siena, said. “I would hate to give up this life, I have a deep love for it. But I can’t rule out leaving the farm to look for other work.”

Italy produced 390,000 metric tons of olive oil in the 1984-85 marketing year, with 25,700 tons worth $34 million exported to the United States. About 10% of the olive oil produced is extra virgin.

Production of oil is cyclical, and the industry, until the freeze, was counting on doubling its output this year.

Redditi said that about 65% of his 400 trees are destroyed or seriously damaged, and will need to be replaced, or cut back at the trunk to encourage new growth.


“It’s a disaster,” he said.

Franco Cencioni said that of the 1,300 olive trees in his nearby grove in Montalcino, 80% show no sign of life.

Cencioni said he also produces some wine and raises some cattle, but it is the sale of the golden-green Tuscan oil that he and the other eight members of his family depend on.

Hardest hit is the small grower who produces oil mostly for consumption within Italy, where it was once such a luxury that even today Italians hold a superstition that breaking a bottle of olive oil brings bad luck.

A liter of high-quality olive oil can cost as much as 14,000 lire ($7) in Italian grocery stores. Under government standards, the label “extra virgin” means the acid content is no more than 1%.

Not only producers are feeling the pinch.

Lucia Felli, of Pozzaglia Sabina in Lazio, works every year for about $16 a day to gather olives at harvest time. “It’s great fun, everybody comes out and there’s a lot of joking. But I don’t know how much work there will be this year.”