04 Jul

County has eyes set on olive oil market

By James Arens,

In 2006 Mendocino County will be seeing a new fruit that isn’t normally on the crop report, olives. “I’ve seen our olive oil industry growing in the four years that I have been here,” said Nick Oliver Agriculture/Measurement Standards Specialist III at the Mendocino County Department of Agriculture. “And in the future I can see the acreage and planting continue to increase.”

California is the leading producer of olive oil in the U.S. but only accounts for less than 1 percent of the world market. “I would like to think that we aren’t concentrating on the bulk olive oil market,” Oliver said. “I think here in Mendocino County we seem to be concentrating more on the quality. More boutique than bulk.” So in California they are challenging the rule in essentially a Mediterranean monarchy. “Here in Mendocino County we are producing olive oil of the highest quality,” said Yvonne Hall, Operations Manager of Olivino in Hopland. And Mendocino County’s oil quality just happens to be stellar, or in this case Stella.

“We first started planting olive trees in 1995 and we started to help people to get interested in planting olive trees,” said Susan Ellery, co-owner of Stella Cadente in Booneville with her husband Tom Hunter. “And Oh my goodness, the industry has grown exponentially since then.” Stella Cadente has also won awards at the L.A. County Fair for its oils. “In 2003 and May of this year we won awards at the Oils of the World Competition for best in class for the Light category and best in show both years,” Ellery said. “We are the only company in California and the U.S. to win these awards.” They have also opened many olive oil bars the most recently in Fort Bragg. “We opened our newest bar in Fort Bragg on Wednesday,” Ellery said.

Locally olive oil growing and selling are on the upswing and in the U.S. sales of olive oil have doubled in the last decade. And now a third of all cooking oils used in house are made from olives. California’s climate is well-suited for growing olives and more and more land is being devoted to growing the fancy fruits. “The quality Tuscan varietals grow well here,” said Theresa Reichert, co-owner of Oliveto del Vecchio in Potter Valley with her husband Curtis. “So you get a very high quality of oil here.” About 4,000 acres of olive-centered orchards are being added to the state each year with about 40 to 50 acres here in Mendocino County but size doesn’t matter. “The orchards here are usually 10 acres or less,” Oliver said. “And the growers seem to distinguish themselves with their quality.”

While the industry grows, so must the producer and the ability to press your own olives becomes a very important aspect of the business. “A press is very important to the area,” said Dave Bengston, Mendocino County Agriculture Commissioner. “If you can press them locally without sending them out then you can save money because before the farmers would have to send their olives all the way down to Napa.”

Mendocino County is fortunate to have 2 presses one in Potter Valley and soon to be one in Hopland. “Quality is what we are looking for here at Oliveto del Vecchio,” Reichert said of the oil that emminates from her presses. “And you get a very high quality of olive oil here in Mendocino County.” Olivino of Hopland also looks forward to when they can start pressing their own and others olives. “We will be up and running in the fall right before harvest time in November,” Hall said.

There were only about 12 olive oil producers in the state 20 years ago but now there are more than 500 producers statewide with about 20 to 25 in Mendocino County. “It’s something I would like to call a cottage industry,” Bengston said. “It’s not a very big industry here, yet.”

“But in the future I can definitely see the industry growing.”

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