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Olive growing and nursery production






Olive growing and nursery production

          More than any other fruit tree, the olive ( Olea europaea L .) has played a vital part in the life of human kind and has been central to the development of culture and food.The olive is a functional plant in the agricultural system of many countries and has acquired a huge socio–economic importance over the centuries. Owing to its longevity and adaptability, it plays a major role as a feature of the landscape and as a crop that grows even in harsh soil and difficult climatic conditions ( Photo 1 ).

Photo 1. The olive tree is a functional plant in the agricultural system of many countries with a Mediterrean climate.

A fascinating 6,000 year-long history, documented by legends, traditions, religious texts and archaeological discoveries, traces the origins of the olive to the Middle East and describes its establishment in all the countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea and in many other areas suited to its cultivation. Over time, the olive spread to the Fertile Crescent area first, Turkey, Palestine, Israel, Lower Egypt, the islands of the Aegean, the territories of Greece, the coastal area of the Balkans, Italy, Spain and Portugal. Spurred by the positive recognition of its produce and by the favourable environmental conditions of the Mediterranean climate, its cultivation radiated out to Morocco , Algeria , Tunisia and the oases of Libya . After the discovery of America , olive cultivation spread southwards to Peru , Argentina , Chile and Uruguay and northwards to the coastal regions of Mexico and the United States where it found an ideal environment in the southern part of California .

In more recent times, olive growing has also been introduced in other countries without an earlier tradition of olive oil production or consumption. As a result, nowadays it is found more and more widely in South Africa , along the coast of Australia , as well as in New Zealand and China ( Fig. 1).

Figure 1. Geographical distribution of olive growing areas.

This generous tree is an economic and social resource in every environment. It protects the countryside and helps to prevent rural depopulation besides being the source of healthy foods like table olives and olive oil.

The growing importance of this crop in meeting demand for agricultural foodstuffs has played a special role in creating favourable conditions for a more effective expansion of olive growing, backed in some countries by specific domestic development programmes. In a globalised market, nurseries must be able to provide top-quality plants to cover this general increase in olive acreage.

Nursery production is a strategic link in the olive supply chain and influences the choices and economic performance of the whole production sector. The development of propagation techniques, the identification and safe conservation of genetic stock for plant production and the use of new technologies are the key to ensure that olive nurseries supply suitable olive plants for developing a modern, sustainable, profitable olive growing. A modern nursery sector which has a dynamic domino effect on the olive industry and which helps to introduce technology is the ideal frame for transferring innovations in olive growing. This will allow the olive tree and its unique produce to serve as a bridge between tradition and innovation, between culture and health, and to secure growth and economic development.

Chapter 1. Background to modern olive growing

The olive is a species of major economic importance to many countries. Over the last 25 years in particular, there has been an upsurge of interest in its cultivation and production.

Olive oil is appreciated not only for its nutritional value but also as an integral part of the health-promoting Mediterranean Diet, which is an accredited nutritional model both inside and outside the Mediterranean region. Medical research has confirmed the value of olive oil and the dissemination of research findings has stimulated its move into new, high-potential consumption markets. With all these factors coming into play simultaneously, world consumption has increased substantially in the last 15 years ( Graph 1 ), rising from 1.6 million tonnes in 1990 to 2.8 million in 2005 , primarily due to the growth of consumption in non-traditional producing and/or consuming countries.



Graph 1. Changes in world olive oil consumption (Source: IOC).

Higher demand has acted as a catalyst for world crop expansion, which increased by an annual rate of 1% ( Graph 2) between 1990 and 2005.



Graph 2. World dissemination of olive growing from the 1950's until 2005 (prepared from several FAO and IOC sources).

Up to the 1960's, world olive cultivation experienced a period of growth, especially in the traditional olive producing countries. According to the literature, some 8.5 million ha of land were under olives at the time.

Censuses carried out by international organisations in the next two decades reported little change in crop area.

From the 1980's, however, the introduction of agronomic techniques such as intensification and irrigation, the introduction of new cultivars and the implementation of development schemes to revitalise old olive orchards or to make existing ones more profitable generated an expansion of olive crop area, which rose to over 10 million ha. This upward trend has become more marked in the last ten years ( Graph 3 ), but it is necessary to emphasise that the development reported since the 1980's has not only entailed the rationalisation of agronomic practices, the updating of technologies in olive oil extraction and table olive processing and the renewal of the nursery sector, but has also implied the modernisation of olive orchards and an ensuing increase in productivity.

This revival was monitored by the International Olive Council (IOC) and can be seen from the present structure of olive groves in the world ( Photo 2 ).

Notably, ‘ marginal ' areas now account for no more than 25% of olive planted area, although they still supply 10% of world production. By coupling culture and tradition, they fulfil specific functions of hydrological conservation and landscape enhancement . “ Traditional ” olive orchards, which are still the most widespread type (50% of total crop area) and provide 40% of world production, have undergone occasional, limited rejuvenation, the number of trees has been increased and the orchards have been adapted to modern cultural techniques. The most up-to-date ‘ modern ' orchards farmed along innovative lines and adapted to modern cultivation techniques (more rational planting distances, watering and soil management, automated crop development, etc.) occupy 25% of olive crop area but account annually for about 50% of world olive production. This switch to modern olive growing and the accompanying crop expansion, including in non-traditional olive producing countries, has led to a proportional increase in olive resources, i.e. the number of trees ( Graph 3 ).


Graph 3. Increase in number of olive trees from the 1960's until 2005 (prepared from several FAO and IOC documents).


The updated data for 2005 (865 million trees) reveal that the number of olive trees has increased by 13.3% with respect to the 1960s (720 million).

Graph 3 shows that the average annual growth rate of 0.2% recorded until 1980 rose to almost 1.1% between the late 1990's and 2005. In numerical terms, these figures mean that approximately 9 million olive plants were planted out each year during this period.

Photo 2 . Traditional and modern olive growing.


Three brief points can be added to this description of the changes in present olive growing.

The first relates to the strong consumer demand for olive oil which is acknowledged to be essential for human health. This is stimulating the intensification of olive growing both in the Mediterranean countries and elsewhere where olive cultivation, mainly for oil, has been resumed or newly developed.

The second comment is connected with the IOC studies, which estimate that olive orchard crop area will expand at a yearly rate of 120,000 ha up to 2010, so bringing world crop area to around 12 million ha.

The third and last comment highlights the key role and future development of modern olive nurseries, which will have to be the sole suppliers of exclusive trees all over the world in order to guarantee product quality to both producers and consumers.


Chapter 2. Nursery production in olive growing countries

Little is known about the fundamental aspects of world olive nursery production or about how propagation is organised. The reason is that the data on olives are entered under general fruit tree production in the official statistics. However, an earlier survey ( Cimato A . 1999 ) has recently been updated to identify and confirm the role of the olive nursery industry in the worldwide spread of olive growing ( Photo 3 ).

The questionnaire replies received from national recognised experts provided insight into nursery size, equipment and propagation techniques and the annual average number of plants produced .


Photo 3 . The olive nursery industry plays an important role in disseminating olive growing around the world.


The survey revealed that the olive nursery industry is heterogeneous and rather different from the fruit tree nursery sector .

Olive nurseries are located in areas with a strong tradition of nursery production and which combine various favourable factors (environment, availability of skilled labour, etc. ).

Small, family-run businesses (producing an annual average of 10–20,000 olive plants) account for the bulk of olive nurseries . Larger, more specialised facilities produce between 30,000 and 100,000 olive plants. In countries with a solid nursery tradition, modern, large-scale nurseries can be found with an annual output of more than 150–200,000 olive plants, which in some cases can reach 500,000 plants/year.

The replies to the questionnaires plainly show there is little scheduling in annual plant production, amongst other things probably because of the strong individualistic nature of nurserymen, and the choice of varieties propagated in the nurseries is guided more by personal intuition than market research. In addition, it emerges that facility management does not generate high yields; in fact, the non-optimal use of production processes is the major source of variability in the nursery economy .

Figure 2 shows that 43.5 million olive plants are produced per year. Eighty-four percent (36.54 million) is produced in the Mediterranean region while the remainder (6.96 million) is supplied by other countries.


Figure 2. Mean annual olive plant production 1995–2005 (A. Cimato – data based on questionnaire).


Clearly, current nursery output will have to be able to cope with the expected expansion of world olive crop area and to meet an estimated annual demand for approximately 50 million olive trees in the next decade.

The adaptation of olive nurseries to more modern propagation techniques has had an impact on the types of plants produced. According to the survey, 73.2% of production (approximately 31.8 million olive plants) is mist propagated, 21.6% is grafted and 5.2% (2.2 million olives) is still propagated by more traditional techniques ( Fig. 3 ).


Figure 3. Annual olive plant production itemised by propagation technique (A. Cimato – based on questionnaire).


When these data are interpreted, it becomes clear that plant production is gradually being concentrated in nursery centres equipped with modern mist propagation facilities, which are more efficient and produce self-rooted plants. Hence, small nurseries employing only traditional methods or grafting are tending to disappear. Lastly, 16.7% of the olive trees are obtained from non-native cultivars ( Fig. 4 ); however, most of the plants (over 36 million) are produced from autochthonous varieties.


Figure 4. Annual olive plant production itemised by source of plant material (A. Cimato – data based on questionnaire).


The answers to the survey reveal the need for: the optimisation of mist propagation performance; the improvement of ‘ in vitro' olive techniques; the application of fertigation and the use of alternative rooting media to peat; the effective implementation of a plant certification process and the updating of plant stock at international level by re-organising a “Varietal Register”.

This last demand raises the need to avoid confining modern olive nursery production to about 20 traditional cultivars (nearly 60% of international nursery output is obtained from primarily European varieties: ‘ Manzanilla', ‘Picholine', ‘Frantoio', ‘Leccino', ‘Picual', ‘Koroneki', etc. and lately also the Israeli “ Barnea ”) and to amplify the range of options open to operators and markets by enhancing the special genetic resources of the olive.

To conclude, production processes and business planning need to be better organised and balanced . In practical terms, it is necessary to organise a new productive, commercial and technological approach to nursery production to incorporate a strategic role into its overall economic and social functions, to make it capable of supplying plants adapted to a range of environments, to equip it to provide the ideal frame for expanding olive growing and to make sure that every country derives effective, sustainable benefits from using this natural resource .





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