Publication Date October 24, 2017

How Climate Change Is Playing Havoc With Olive Oil (and Farmers)

Harvesters gathering olives at Capezzana, the Contini Bonacossi family estate in Prato, Italy. Photo: Massimo Berruti for The New York Times

It was in June, the time of year when the first olives normally burst from their blossoms in the mild warmth of early summer, when Irene Guidobaldi walked through her groves in blistering heat and watched in horror as the flowers on her trees began to wither and fall.

The only way to save her family’s precious orchard in the hills of Umbria was to buy the most precious thing of all in this summer of drought: water.

Lots and lots of water.

And so, Ms. Guidobaldi, an eighth-generation olive grower, bought water by the truckload, nearly every day, for most of the summer.

The heat wave that swept across southern Europe this summer, which scientists say bore the fingerprints of human-induced climate change, is only the latest bout of strange weather to befall the makers of olive oil.

Some years, like this one, the heat comes early and stays. Other years, it rains so much — as it did in 2014 — that the olive fly breeds like crazy, leaving worms inside the olives. Or there’s an untimely frost when the fruits first form, which is what happened in Beatrice Contini Bonacossi’s groves in Tuscany. Or, an early hot spell is followed by a week of fog and rain, which is what happened on Sebastiano Salafia’s farm in Sicily a few years ago, leaving the trees confused, as he put it, about when to bear fruit.

“Every year, there’s something,” Mr. Salafia said.

Gone are the days when you could count on the mild “mezze stagioni,” or half-seasons, that olives rely on before and after the heat. Gone, too, is the cycle you could count on: one year good, next year not good.