A small fraction of the world’s olive-growing area produces more than a third of all olive oil due to the immense yields of very high-density groves. According to experts, the share of olive oil produced by very high density groves is expected to increase.
A report published by Spanish nursery Agromillora said that around 3 percent of olive-growing hectares worldwide are very high-density groves. Yet their yield has reached 36 percent of the world’s olive oil production.
Very high density groves, also called hedgerow olive groves, include around 1,600 olive trees per hectare. Trees are planted about one meter apart in rows three to four meters wide. Their management is entirely mechanized.
According to the study by Juan Vilar Strategic Consultants, 11.6 million hectares of olive groves are spread over 66 countries. Of these, 400,000 hectares are at very high density.
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According to Agromillora, this approach allows for greater productivity and reduced labor costs due to high mechanization, early entry into production and efficient harvesting.
Due to their reliance on water availability and mostly flat landscapes, not all groves can be planted with this approach. Where possible, growers can adopt specific cultivars that have been shown to perform best in such an environment, such as Arbosana, Koroneiki, or Manzanilla.
According to Agromillora, harvesting one hectare of very high density olive trees requires one or two hours at most, with harvesting costs reduced to €0.03 to €0.06 per kilogram of olives.
“This type of harvesting allows the harvesting of the olive in the correct state of maturation and a rapid delivery of the fruits to the mill for processing, reducing the deterioration they may suffer and the possible undesirable flavors or aromas in the oil”, the company said.
Employing 44,000 workers paid at 90 million euros per year, investments in very high density groves reach around 7 billion euros, with an average turnover per harvest of around 2 billion euros, i.e. around 15% of the average world income.
The report indicates that the very high density groves generate around 450 million euros per year in terms of tax revenue and investment in the local economy.
The authors said the main purpose of the report is to highlight that the impact of very high density thickets is not limited to yields. The report argues that very high density groves can also improve sustainability and biodiversity.
“It is scientifically established that the olive grove in bocage is a catalyst for biodiversity because thanks to the vegetation cover and the optimization of resources, in particular water, it slows down erosion,” the report states.
“With its 35,000 hectares planted annually (according to the estimates of the three campaigns studied), [such orchards are] in a way counteracting, vegetatively and progressively, the 420 million hectares of forest that have been lost in the world since 1990”, he added.
However, not everyone agrees with this conclusion. A 2021 study from the University of Jaén found that traditional olive groves sequester more carbon dioxide than very high-density groves.
A separate study, also published by the University of Jaén in 2021, concluded that intensive agricultural practices in olive groves generally lead to loss of biodiversity by putting intense pressure on plants, birds and insects.
A third study by Spain’s National Agency for Scientific Research (CSIC) has linked very high-density olive cultivation to increased desertification in Andalusia, the largest olive oil-producing region. olive in the world.
Away from environmental claims and counterclaims, the report also revealed that very high density groves are an important source of employment in rural areas and also combat food waste.
“Wherever it is possible to turn the olive grove into a hedge, it places more population in the territory than any other type of olive cultivation, and what settles people in the territory is wealth,” said said Juan Vilar during the presentation of the report at the Fruit Attraction agri-food fair.
Again, not everyone agrees with this conclusion. Researchers from the University of Jaén told Olive Oil Times that traditional groves create more year-round jobs — but not necessarily better jobs — than very high-density groves due to the need for manual harvesting and processing. interview in traditional groves.
As a case study to illustrate its claims, the report cites the development of very high-density olive groves in the Alentejo, Portugal’s most relevant olive-producing region.
“The Alentejo has been an excellent example of the compatibility of an economically profitable culture, which allows the creation of value in the sector and in the region, with the promotion of environmental and social development indicators,” the report states.
“That is to say with a significant impact on carbon sequestration, on the provision of ecosystem services and on the stabilization of the population in the territory,” he added. “After the establishment of these plantations, per campaign, the opportunity for stable and permanent work was created for more than 700 people.
“For the first time, the olive oil sector has a competitive tool, the hedgerow olive grove, to produce extra virgin olive oil at sustainable costs and gain relevant market share by compared to other vegetable fats,” the report concludes.