The Olive Oil Capital of the World, Parched

Spain’s Jaén Province, home to one fifth of the world’s supply of “green gold,” copes with climate change and threats to its way of life.

David Segal, a European business correspondent for The New York Times based in London, and José Bautista, a reporter based in Madrid, reported from El Molar in Spain’s Jaén province.

The branch, plucked from one of thousands of trees in this densely packed olive grove, has browning leaves and a few tiny, desiccated buds that are bunched near the end. To Agustín Bautista, the branch tells a story and the story is about a harvest that is doomed.

Typically, those buds are green and healthy, and can produce 13,000 gallons of olive oil in a season. That is more than enough for Mr. Bautista, a 42 year old with a booming voice and close-cropped red hair, to support his wife and two young kids. Starting in October, when olives are shaken from the trees and gathered in nets on the ground, he’ll be lucky to produce one fifth of that amount.

“I’m going to lose money,” he said, in the resigned tone of a man squarely in the acceptance stage of grief. As he looked around the arid acres of his property, he summed up the reality facing Spain’s olive farmers: “No water, no future.”

Drought has ravaged dozens of crops throughout Europe — corn in Romania, rice in Italy, beans in Belgium, and beets and garlic in France. Among the hardest hit is the olive crop of Spain, which produces one half of the world’s olive oil. Nearly half of Spain’s output comes from Jaén — pronounced hi-EN — a landlocked southern province of 5,200 square miles, about the size of Connecticut, that yields far more olive oil annually than all of Italy, according to the International Olive Council. It is often called the olive oil capital of the world.

Farmers and political leaders are now searching for answers to a pressing question: What happens to a one-crop economy when that crop is scorched by record-breaking temperatures?

This has never been much of a tourist destination, but those who come, mostly to see Moorish fortresses and Renaissance-style cathedrals, are treated to a landscape unlike any other. Sixty-seven million olive trees are planted on every hill and valley, alongside every highway and road, in every direction. It has been called the largest man-made forest on earth.

Since the Romans began planting this forest centuries ago, olive trees have sustained thousands of farmers and itinerant workers here. The trees thrive in a Mediterranean climate and need a minimal amount of rain. But not this minimal. Europe is suffering through its worst drought in 500 years, says the European Drought Observatory, a service run by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, and is experiencing heat waves so severe that the nearby city of Seville gave one of them a name — Zoe — the way hurricanes and tropical storms are named in the United States.

The morning that Mr. Bautista studied the withered olive tree branch, he was sweating in heat that was already headed above 100 degrees by 11 a.m. As he drove his Toyota pickup truck around the 5,000 trees that he cultivates in a grove beside the tiny village of El Molar, where he grew up, he was already ruing lost profits. He and other farmers expect that the olive crop of Jaén will be about 50 percent smaller than last year. Government estimates of lost income now stand at $1 billion.

“The situation is critical,” said Francisco Reyes Martínez, president of the Provincial Council of Jaén. “A lot of people here are going to struggle.”

The harvest is just the latest setback for the hundreds of tiny villages that dot Jaén and have relied for decades on the olive crop. El Molar has one bar, one church, no restaurants and an official population tally of 237.

“I think the actual number is closer to 200,” said the village mayor, Misericordia Jareño. “Some people have died.”

There were 1,000 people here when she moved to El Molar as a girl of 10, back in 1963. The place did not have a single paved road and homes lacked running drinking water. But it had a high school, its own cuisine — she urged a visitor to return for dinner and try her gachamiga, a dish of olive oil, garlic, salt, water and wheat flour — and a sense of community that has endured even as the place slowly emptied.

Many remaining residents are fourth- or fifth-generation farmers who can trace their holdings back more than 100 years. They have an attachment to the business that transcends facts and figures, tiptoes into romance and bursts with civic pride. Oil from here winds up in dozens of different varieties sold around the world, many of which can be purchased online directly from local mills.

The landscape has inspired some of Spain’s greatest poets (Miguel Hernández, Antonio Machado), singers (Juanito Valderrama) and painters (Rafael Zabaleta). Now the groves are turning up on social media. One Jaén farmer who has 1.7 million followers on TikTok makes gargantuan sandwiches, all generously slathered with olive oil.

“It was a surprise to us, the amount of interest there is in seeing how we produce olive oil,” said José Jiménez, co-owner of the mill, Oleícola San Francisco, in a village called Baeza. “We’ve already had 50,000 visitors from 78 countries.”

Tourism will never offset losses in the fields nor thwart a variety of tectonic shifts that go far beyond the weather. A harvest that once took tens of thousands of people, including a massive influx of seasonal migrant workers, now requires a fraction of manpower because so much of the work is now done by machines. Most notably, there is the vibradora, a hand-held, gasoline-powered device — it looks like a chain saw with a very long, thin snout — that shakes olives out of trees by clamping on to branches and rattling them.

A person armed with a vibradora can shake 1500 kilograms (about 3,300 pounds) of olives to the ground in a day. Using the traditional slap-it-with-a-stick technique, the number is closer to 200 kilograms a day.

That is one reason El Molar has been shedding population; far fewer people are needed for the harvest. And those still toiling in the groves face higher costs, especially now that inflation is over 9 percent in the eurozone, raising the price of electricity, fuel, fertilizer and labor.

“The cost of producing olive oil is now two or three times as expensive as it was ten years ago,” said Juan Carlos Hervás, a farmer and expert with the local branch of a farmer’s union. He laid out the math: A liter of extra virgin olive oil, the highest grade, now fetches 3.90 euros (about $3.90), well above the 1.8 euros per liter that was the going rate before the pandemic. But the price of harvesting that liter has gone up by 2.40 euros.

“We’re losing money now,” Mr. Hervás said. “For the first time in many years we’re seeing a good price for olive oil but our costs are going up and it hasn’t rained in three months.”

Without expensive irrigation systems to water trees, many are fruitless. During Mr. Bautista’s drive through the groves of El Molar, there was a clear dichotomy: Trees that were quenched from a nearby reservoir, using many miles of black tubing, looked healthy and green. Those that were not were brown and barren.

“Eight liters per hour, for eight hours, one night a week,” said Mr. Bautista, explaining how much each tree is watered. That water is expensive and farmers here need to buy a share of a reservoir cooperative, created in 2001, to access it. Many decided long ago to save their money, betting that rain would do the job for free.

That bet has never looked more catastrophic, though the portents were evident 15 years ago. José Felguera, the secretary of Asolite, a nonprofit association of olive tree farmers, said that in the mid-aughts, he and colleagues met with climatologists from Galicia to pose a question: Why was there less and less rain?

“We saw lot more airplanes flying overhead so we thought it had something to do with planes,” said Mr. Felguera, sitting near a public swimming pool in Arquillos, the village where he lives. “The climate scientists said that the planes had nothing to do with it.”

Mr. Felguera, who grew up in Arquillos, remembers two or three snowfalls a year as a child and creeks that were frozen so solid during winter that a rock couldn’t break the ice. Now, winters are dry and short, which he says is even more damaging to olive trees than torrid summers.

“These are trees made for dry weather, and periods of drought have been around forever,” he said. “But now the droughts are stronger and longer.”

Subsidies from the European Union have been essential to the olive farmers in Jaén for years. Currently, the rate is roughly 690 euros a year per hectare, says Juan Vilar Hernández, an agricultural analyst and professor at the University of Jaén. Given that the average farmer owns 1.58 hectares — about 4 acres — the average subsidy is roughly 1090 euros a year.

“If you removed subsidies, about 80 percent of the farmers in Jaén would lose money,” he said. The subsidy is set to decrease in coming years, which alarms many farmers. One long-term solution is for farms here to embrace “modern oliviculture,” which means packing more trees into the same physical footprint and then using additional industrial equipment during the harvest.

For much of Jaén, however, that isn’t possible. Most of its groves are on sloping hills where expensive new machines like olive harvesters — essentially, massive $500,000 tractors that drive over 14 foot trees — can’t operate. Inevitably, Jaén is going to lag in productivity compared to groves in California, Chile, Australia and elsewhere, Mr. Hernández said. The province may always be synonymous with olive production, but in the future it will be a competition that the province can’t win.

“The average age of an olive farmer here is 60,” he said. “And their children are all moving to cities. So in 20 years, no one is going to live in these villages.”

Luis Planas, Spain’s agriculture minister, said in an interview that the country needed to adapt to new conditions. He outlined a number of steps the government has already taken to provide short-term relief, including tax breaks and an increase in employment benefits. The goal is to save and sustain more than an industry.

“If villages like El Molar disappear, Spain will lose a very important part of its identity,” he said. “If the olive grove disappears, that area will become a desert.”

One recent Friday evening, El Molar ignored both the weather and the laws of market economies arrayed against it and gathered for its annual summer fiesta. It had the feel of a family reunion, and included more than a few Bautistas, including a reporter of this story, who is Agustín’s cousin. Not much happened before about 11 p.m., when a brass band with a drummer noisily marched up the main street, playing a kid’s song, “Soy una Taza.” Beer and tortillas were sold at a pop-up restaurant and bar while children caromed around a bouncy castle set up nearby.

Many gathered under white tents set up in the village square. A few recent college graduates were on hand and rhapsodized about growing up here.

“My childhood was beautiful,” said Mario Romero, who was celebrating his 25th birthday. “When I was young, my parents taught me how to work in the olive trees and how to love this way of life.”

He liked being in nature, repairing broken equipment and having a sense of self sufficiency. But he studied to be a teacher and there is no longer a school for children over 11 in the village. Like a lot of his friends, he won’t settle in El Molar because it lacks any opportunities aside from olive farming. That said, it will always be a part of his life. His parents still own 600 olive trees and he has no intention of selling even one when he inherits them.

“I’d like to buy more,” he said. He imagines having children some day and even if they never want to farm for a living, he wants to teach them how it is done. “The way my parents taught me.”

At about midnight, a D.J. showed up and started playing dance music at a tinnitus-inducing volume. As if on cue, the wind picked up, napkins started swirling in the air and to everyone’s collective delight it started to rain, lightly at first.

“It is not normal to have rain in August,” she said. “But I was praying for it and God listened.”

By then, it started to pour and everyone scurried for cover to watch the deluge.