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Trump’s Tariffs Couldn’t Save the California Olive Industry

A cautionary tale on how protectionism can backfire—just as the US and EU consider new subsidies in strategic industries.

Harvesting olives in Woodlake, California.

Harvesting olives in Woodlake, California.

Photographer: Matt Black/Magnum Photos/Trunk Archive

Rod Burkett’s surrender came more from exasperation than defeat. After cultivating olive trees in the heart of California’s farming belt for 30 years, he finally sold his groves in 2022.

“I just threw my hands up and said, ‘To hell with it,’” says Burkett, the former chairman of the Olive Growers Council of California and an early supporter of former President Donald Trump’s tariffs on olive imports from Spain. Burkett says high fertilizer prices, rising labor costs, water shortages and steep taxes all factored into his decision. But his primary reason for walking away is that farmers in other countries—Spain, in particular—can grow, ship and sell their table olives in America at far cheaper prices. “It has been a great industry, but as far as long-term growth, I just don’t see it,” he says.