21 Jun

California olive oil producers eye growing market

Jamie Johansson can be found every Saturday at the Chico Farmers’ Market, hawking bottles of his Lodestar Farms olive oil by offering dips of bread.This is how California’s olive oil producers are squeezing their way into a crowded market: one bottle at a time.

Health-conscious and food-savvy Americans are increasingly turning to olive oil, and U.S. sales have doubled over the past decade, now accounting for a third of all cooking oils used at home. But California, the leading U.S. producer, is the new kid on a very old block.

The state accounts for less than 1 percent of a world market dominated by Mediterranean countries that have been producing the oil for millennia, the climate here is well-suited. Acreage is increasingly being devoted to growing olives specifically for oil.

California producers, many of them independent sellers like Johansson, are targeting the gourmet foods market with small batches of high quality oil.

“Food trends in the country have always started in California,” said Johansson, who sells his product for $12 to $18 a bottle at farmers’ markets, independent grocery stores, a tasting room on his farm and through a Web site.

It’s great for cooking or as a dip for bread, he says, and it’s not like the bland, blond mass-produced oils found in many grocery stores.

Until recently, olive oil offered a way for growers to salvage fruit that didn’t make it as table olives. But updated technology borrowed from the wine industry has cut farmers’ harvesting costs.

Machines now shake the olives onto a net, allowing farmers to harvest their crop for about $40 per ton, compared to $350 per hand-picked ton. As a result, about 4,000 acres of oil-specific orchards are being added in California each year.

Hand-picking is still favored by smaller and organic operations, but the mechanized harvesting doesn’t diminish the oil’s quality, said Paul Vossen, who studies olive oil through the University of California Cooperative Extension office in Sonoma County.

From a half-dozen 20 years ago, the state’s oil industry has grown to include more than 500 producers, most of them operating on less than 30 acres.

Being relatively new to the centuries-old process means U.S. olive oil producers aren’t bogged down by traditional methods, leaving them open to new technologies that can do the job quicker and better, Vossen said.

Until about a decade ago, the olive oil available to most U.S. consumers was strictly imported and not good quality, Vossen said.

“They’d go down to the grocery store and see the cheap brands and the more expensive brands and think ‘Why should I spend money on something that I don’t really know about?'” Vossen said.

Olive oil comes in several grades. For an oil to be labeled extra virgin, the top category, it must be made from the first pressing of freshly picked olives. Lower grades – such as “extra light” – are made from olives that are older, bruised or have fallen on the ground.

Nearly all California growers produce extra virgin oil, Vossen said.

The Food and Drug Administration doesn’t enforce the labeling categories, and the last time the United States set olive oil standards was 1942. Back then the terms “fancy” and “extra fancy” were used to describe the oil, Johansson said.

The California industry’s trade group, the California Olive Oil Council, has petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture to adopt the international grades and has developed its own criteria to put its stamp of approval on oil. But the council’s certification panel recently failed a taste test before international judges.

The seal of the international group doesn’t mean much to American producers, whose main marketing points have been local appeal, Vossen said.

“In California, the quality is excellent but the quantity is low,” he said.

Today, there is a greater awareness of food and a move toward cooking more international and gourmet dishes, which often lend themselves to olive oil, Vossen said.

“People are realizing they don’t have to necessarily treat olive oil as a fat, but as a spice,” Vossen said, “as something that will change the flavor of your food,”

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