California farmers are pushing olive oil as though it’s the new thing, hoping to profit from denser planting methods and a growing U.S. appetite for the heart-healthy cooking ingredient.
“Every time you turn around, somebody new wants to sell you olive oil,” said Darrell Corti, an olive oil authority and president of Corti Brothers grocery in Sacramento.
“You’d love to have all the brands on your shelves,” he said. “When there were five or six producers, it was easy. Now that there are 105 or 106 producers, it’s a lot more difficult.”
California has had a cottage olive oil industry since the 19th century and a boutique one for more than a decade. In just the last couple of years, though, the industry has started to look like one ready to fight for a serious share of a booming U.S. olive oil market still dominated by foreign brands.
Retail sales of olive oil in the United States have doubled in the past decade and now account for a third of total cooking-oil sales, according to the North American Olive Oil Association. More than 97 percent of U.S. retail sales of olive oil belong to imported brands made from olives grown in Spain, Italy, Greece and elsewhere in the Mediterranean.
For California olive oil producers, the fight for shelf space and market share takes several fronts: increasing production efficiency, teaching customers to become discerning olive oil buyers, and cracking down on what they say is widespread import fraud.
California growers, primarily in the Central Valley, are planting millions of new trees _ 2,000 acres’ worth in 2005, and likely even more this year.
“The number of acres planted is going to grow exponentially for 10 or 15 years,” said Jeff Colombini, a Lodi farmer who planted 250 acres in 2004 and is adding 150 this year. He also grows 1,200 acres of fruits, walnuts and wine grapes.
“It would take 300,000 acres in full production in California to meet domestic consumption _ it’s a huge growth opportunity,” he said.
At the end of 2005, California had roughly 8,100 acres in oil olives, according to Paul Vossen, a University of California Cooperative Extension farm adviser. That’s not much next to the 640,000 acres devoted to almonds, but it’s on par with specialty crops such as kiwi and winter cucumbers.
To squeeze more profit out of less land, most new orchards use high-density planting methods and machinery from the wine-grape industry.
Mechanizing means making an olive orchard behave like a vineyard, using techniques developed in Spain and first used in the region on the 500-acre, Spanish-owned California Olive Ranch near Oroville beginning in 1999.
With trees pruned 7 feet tall and tied to trellises in neat 13-foot-wide rows, “it’s unlike the olive trees that most people expect,” said Alan Greene, the company’s vice president for sales and marketing.
When the small black or green olives ripen in October, a modified grape harvesting machine shakes them from the trees and feeds them into a trailer. Harvest takes seconds per tree.
The cost to pick olives by hand typically runs about $350 a ton, according to a report by Vossen, but mechanizing can cut that to $40 a ton.
The method has opened the door to industrial-scale operations. “We can ramp this up,” Greene said. The company plans to double its California acreage soon, he said.
Still, even larger growers like the California Olive Ranch can’t seem to beat the imports on price.
So they are marketing their product on superior taste and local appeal, and trying to educate consumers about the subtleties of extra-virgin olive oil flavor.
That kind of marketing has historically been the domain of small producers. With new competition from the high-efficiency growers, older labels, like Sciabica’s, which has been making olive oil in Modesto, Calif., since 1936, are emphasizing their uniqueness.
“I’m not going to be able to get my costs as low as theirs, so I have to be more in the niche market, where we’re going directly to the consumer,” said owner Nick Sciabica.
While only three varieties of olives are suited to the now-popular vineyard-style cultivation, Sciabica said, “we have a whole gamut of varieties _ a whole flavor profile.”
Nearly all California growers produce mainly the top grade of olive oil, extra-virgin, which accounts for 58 percent of total U.S. sales, according to the North American Olive Oil Association.
The different grades of olive oil are distinguished primarily by taste, which is a function of both the method used to extract oil from the olives, as well as the variety of olive, Corti said.
Most fat in any olive oil is monounsaturated fat, which can help to reduce LDL (bad cholesterol) levels when substituted for saturated fats, like butter.
Extra-virgin olive oil, as a sort of health bonus, contains higher concentrations of antioxidants than lower grades, according to University of California-Davis, nutrition expert Liz Applegate. Antioxidants, broadly speaking, help to repair damage in the body’s cells.
“I tell people to cook with olive oil,” she said. “And if extra-virgin’s on sale, go for it.”
Extra-virgin oil costs more than lower grades because it is more difficult to make.
To produce extra-virgin oil up to International Olive Oil Council standards, olives generally must be pressed shortly after harvesting and meet certain chemical standards. They also must possess some “positive” flavor traits.
“It can taste a little green, or minty, or like nettles or grassy,” Vossen said. “It just has to have something other than nothingness.”
Virgin oil, by contrast, can be produced with a less strict _ and less costly _ regimen. For instance, it can be pressed from olives that have fallen from trees and lain on the ground. Virgin oil is also allowed to have flavor “defects,” ranging from fusty to musty to rancid.
Just plain “olive oil” can contain oil that has been refined with heat or chemicals to weaken bad flavors. Olive oils sold in the United States as “extra light” often fall into this category.
Because the taste differences between olive oil grades are often subtle, while differences in production costs are large, there’s an incentive for producers to dilute extra-virgin oil with lesser grades. Many in the domestic industry say that’s why some imported extra-virgin brands are so inexpensive.
That’s a problem both for domestic growers and importers.
“For those importers and distributors who, like us, go to great effort to ensure the quality of our products, it’s very difficult to deal in an environment where they’re very commonly misrepresented,” said Peter Thor, president of Bellissimo Foods, a group of specialty food distributors in Walnut Creek, Calif. Thor buys olive oils exported from Italy, and says he orders expensive tests on each shipment.
At this point, federal regulations are of little help in enforcing the grading standards.
They don’t recognize the internationally accepted distinctions between “extra-virgin,” “virgin,” and “olive oil,” said Martin Stutsman, a consumer safety officer with the Food and Drug Administration, so the FDA doesn’t have any enforcement authority.
The California industry’s trade group, the California Olive Oil Council, has petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture to adopt the international grades. The agency plans to come out with a draft of new standards this summer, a spokesman said.
Grocers also play a role in quality control. Corti has a simple strategy for getting the good stuff on his shelves.
“We taste them all. And we buy what we like.”
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