Century-old olive trees are being chopped up to use as firewood or sold off as garden ornaments as some in Spain’s olive oil industry turn to younger, more productive trees in hope of lowering costs.
In recent years the sector in Spain has been left reeling; a plunge in global olive oil prices was followed by a punishing 25% tariff levied by the US on Spanish olive oil. After prices sank to levels that left many struggling to break even, the industry has slowly recovered, though prices remain shy of 2018 levels.
The volatility has left some uprooting the trees that have fuelled olive oil production for generations. “It’s a pity about these century-old olive trees,” Juan Antonio Galindo, the owner of a 40-hectare farm near Seville recently told the broadcaster RTVE. “But I have to cut them down to switch to intensive farming … the difference is huge.”
He estimated the move would cut his production costs by more than 70%. While many felled olive trees end up being sold as garden ornaments, he doubted that his trees would find a buyer. Instead, they would likely be used as firewood, he said. “It’s a blow to see your trees have to go, but the wallet is also important.”
Rafael Pico, who heads the Spanish association of olive oil exporters, said about 70% of Spanish olive oil producers were small-scale operations that often relied on traditional farming methods.
“Inevitably – and this is my opinion – there will be a restructuring of these olive groves towards intensive and super-intensive farming,” he said, pointing to the growth of intensive olive farming in Australia and the US. “If not they could find themselves left out of the market.”
Global competition is likely to intensify, after the EU and the US reached a deal to temporarily suspend the tariffs on Spanish olive oil, along with several other retaliatory tariffs brought in during Donald Trump’s presidency.
While there were olive farmers switching to intensive production, these cases were far from the norm, said Cristóbal Cano of the Unión de Pequeños Agricultores y Ganaderos, which represents about 8,000 small-scale farmers in the country. “It’s not the majority that are uprooting century-old olive trees to intensively farm.”
Some had instead sought to embrace the singularity of Spain’s oldest olive trees. From the Valencian municipality of Traiguera to the southern Spanish town of Casabermeja, farmers are producing olive oils that are vibrantly infused with the history of these trees.
These efforts have been boosted by legal protections; lawmakers in Catalonia last year voted to strengthen protections for the region’s oldest olive trees, echoing similar legislation introduced in Valencia in 2006.
“Changing from traditional to super-intensive farming isn’t the only way to achieve profitability,” said Cano, arguing that social and environmental factors must also be considered.
“This triple sustainability is what you need to achieve,” he said. “I think that olive growers are increasingly conscious that our future lies in the differentiation of our olive oils and in conveying to consumers the social and environmental impacts that are at play behind each litre of olive oil.”