27 Aug

Reducing foreign oil is olive growers’ goal

California farmers are making a big push, planting tens of thousands of trees

By George Raine,

It was Julio Cesar’s first day planting trees in the olive orchard in the Sacramento Valley and he already had it down to a science:

Dig a hole half a shovel deep, place the root ball attached to a 12-inch-tall tree in the hole, return the dirt and stomp down on it. Six seconds flat. Move on down the line 5 feet and do it again.

Cesar and 34 other California Olive Ranch field hands each seek to plant between 1,200 and 1,500 trees during a seven-hour workday, a tough quota. “You get used to it,” he said.

California Olive Ranch is already the largest orchard for olive oil production in the United States, and the largest milling facility, producing 25 percent of California’s olive oil. Now it is more than doubling in size with the planting of 500,000 olive trees on its 883-acre site in Glenn County.

The expansion is a major step forward for the state’s olive oil industry, a boutique crop about the size of California’s winter pear, kiwi and fresh market cucumber harvests.

Olive oil production in the state increased 168 percent between 1996 and 2004, and continues apace. California growers produce approximately 425,000 gallons and are on track for three-quarters of a million gallons annually in three or four years, overtaking the French, said Patricia Darragh, executive director of the California Olive Oil Council, a trade and marketing association.

“Many of our producers are sold out,” she said. “Consumers are becoming more and more attuned to the phenomenal health benefits of authentic extra virgin olive oil.”

U.S. consumers purchase 65 million gallons of olive oil annually, almost all of it from Spain, Italy, Greece and other Mediterranean countries. California production hardly compares.

You might say that the growth spurt in olives is a small step toward reducing our dependence on foreign oil.

Junipero Serra and the Franciscan friars brought olive trees to California from Mexico and planted the first cuttings at Mission San Diego de Alcala, California’s first church, founded in 1769. The first press was established in Ventura County in 1871, and by 1900 there were 150 nurseries selling olive trees in the state.

Olive oil renaissance

For most of the last century, however, California had little olive oil production. Growers were unable to compete with cheaper foreign oil. They turned their attention to table olives, most destined for canning.

Olive oil’s fortunes began to improve in 1990s, with the rise of health consciousness and gourmet food culture. The oil of the ancient fruit is emerging as a new star, with some 7,500 acres now planted with trees for olive oil production in the state. That doesn’t include California Olive Ranch’s addition.

“The beauty of the renaissance of the domestic industry is the fact we now produce oil that is, by anyone’s judgment, of a quality as high or higher than the world’s counterparts,” Napa producer Albert Katz said.

With his wife, Kim, he owns Katz and Co., which makes extra virgin olive oil from some of the original orchards planted by Spanish missionaries and Italian immigrants. He is one of the founders of the California Olive Oil Council, whose mission is to make the state a source of sustainable, commercially viable, world-class olive oil.

“Consumers — if the price is comparable, because price is always an issue — would rather buy oil that is made locally than buy an import,” Katz said.

California Olive Ranch started business in 1999 in Oroville (Butte County), about an hour east of its Artois ranch, with more than 300,000 trees planted on 483 acres. It turned its first profit in 2004 and projects sales of more than $2 million in 2006.

The owners, oddly enough, are 12 investors from Spain, the leading olive oil country. They believe that the Sacramento Valley and the southern San Joaquin Valley, with their Mediterranean climate and terrain, are favorable for olive oil production.

California Olive Ranch’s business plan turns on a simple concept: Mechanize to lower production costs and circumvent the state’s agricultural labor shortage, a major problem for California’s farmers.

Three olive varieties ideal for oil production, Arbequina, Arbosana and Koroneiki, are the size of bushes. California Olive Ranch plants them in a system called super high density, meaning close together much like grapes in a vineyard.

They are planted in hedgerows and trained to grow trellis style so that over-the-row machines can harvest the olives quickly. This method allows 675 trees per acre compared with 120 trees using traditional planting techniques. They’re topped off at 6 1/2 feet, reaching that size after little more than a year.

Mechanization is the future

In a traditional olive orchard, harvested by hand, it takes a crew of up to 40 an hour to pick an acre. At California Olive Ranch, a crew of two harvests an acre in about 45 minutes — three seconds per tree. They use a harvester with oscillating rods that slip between branches. The vibrations cause the fruit to drop into buckets.

“This is a major issue as we move forward in California agriculture,” said Alan Greene, California Olive Ranch’s vice president of sales and marketing. “The crops that are not mechanized — you will have to charge a lot more for them or they will go away.”

California Olive Ranch is the first North American producer to plant a super high density olive orchard. The company is spending $3.6 million to prepare the Glenn County site, which includes installing drip irrigation and trellises, planting the trees and attaching them to bamboo stakes.

The 500,000 olive trees come from NursTech Inc., the California branch of the multinational Agromillora, the world’s largest supplier of in vitro propagated rootstocks and olive plants.

The trees arrive at the orchard in fruit boxes from a nursery some 40 miles away. They are transferred to trailers that drop them off for crews to plant along lines that a tractor operator, using a global positioning system, had laid out. The rows are 13 feet apart, the trees 5 feet apart. They’ll need two summers in the ground before they will bear fruit. The first crop could be ready in the fall of 2007, but certainly by 2008.

“The biggest issue for us in the U.S. is to get an educated consumer,” Greene said. “Once they realize that what they have been buying — the average oil they have been buying, the cheap stuff they get on sale at the grocery store — does not taste like good olive oil and they find out that there is better tasting oil, they will make the switch.”

California Olive Ranch recently won gold medal awards at both the International Olive Competition in Los Angeles and, along with Calolea Olive Oil of Loma Rica (Yuba County), at the Huiles du Monde (Oils of the World) competition in France. Another producer, Apollo Olive Oil of Oregon House (Yuba County), was selected last spring among the 10 best olive oils in the world by Der Feinschmecker magazine.

California growers are working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture on standards for olive oil imports that they believe will benefit the state’s industry by weeding out adulterated and improperly labeled oil.

California Olive Ranch is not through expanding. The company is considering purchasing a large parcel in the San Joaquin Valley, and it is signing contracts with growers such as Dan Kennedy, who is planting olive oil trees in Artois on 255 acres where he once grew row crops. California Olive Ranch will pay him $9 per gallon of olive oil for the next nine years.

“It looks like that could make it profitable for us,” Kennedy said.

Meanwhile, table olives are in decline in California. Acreage is down to 31,000 and the crop is beset by fruit flies.

Tough season for table olives

Trees grown for olive oil production are less susceptible to fruit flies. The fruit is smaller and less attractive to the flies, Glenn County agriculture commissioner Mark Black said.

The 2006 California table olive crop forecast is 50,000 tons, down 65 percent from last year’s crop of 142,000 tons, according to the USDA. It’s the worst crop in many years, bedeviled by rains that knocked blossoms off trees, harming pollination.

Greene said he doesn’t know of any new table olive trees being planted in the state. “You have to prune those things. You have to put guys on ladders, get up in the trees. Big labor costs.”
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