13 Jun

Lodi olive oil ads lure winegrape growers

Pic by Michael McCollum,
Aricle by Reed Fujii,

LODI – Winegrapes are a $200 million-a-year business in San Joaquin County. But now a series of newspaper ads, touting better profits for olive oil, is asking Lodi-area growers to consider replacing their vineyards.

Corto Olive oilThe aim is to roughly double the acreage of olives grown in “super-high-density” plantings of 680 trees per acre and trained to trellises, a system that allows growers to produce very heavy crops and harvest by machine to avoid the high cost of traditional hand harvesting.

“We are looking in the neighborhood of an additional 1,500 acres,” said Jeff Colombini, president of Lodi Farming Co. A sister company, Corto Olive Co., recently established a mill in Lodi to process the olives into oil.

“The main reason why is we feel we need a minimum quality of olive oil to be effective in the marketplace,” he said. “We need more oil, which means we need more olives, which means we need more growers.”

U.S. demand for olive oil poses a great opportunity for California growers, Colombini said.

“There’s 70 million gallons of olive oil consumed in this country and 99.5 percent are produced outside of this country,” he said. “For California to produce all of the United State’s domestic consumption, we would have to have, in full production today, 350,000 acres of super-high-density olives.”

Currently, statewide there are about 10,000 acres of olives grown for oil.

“The point is, we can sell what we produce domestically,” he said.

The Corto Olive ads are aimed at landowners who have struggled with sagging grape prices since about 2000, the result of extensive new vineyards planted in the late 1990s and an influx of low-priced foreign wines.

“When you compare it to the alternatives, particularly to wine grapes, it’s a lot better deal,” Colombini said.

Many grape growers are farming at a loss, which often is part of the cyclical nature of farm commodity prices, said Mark Chandler, executive director of the Lodi-Woodbridge Winegrape Commission. Still, switching to a new crop offers its own risks.

“The grower has to ask themselves: “Is the turnaround in the grape industry around the corner or am in going to invest in something new and unproven?” he said.

“When I look at that opportunity, there’s uncertainly no matter which crop you go into.”

He also cautioned that selling olive oil in bulk was also subject to swings in commodity prices, and that can be especially difficult for California producers who face higher costs for land, labor and regulation than other areas of the country and world.

“California is not a low-cost producer. We have to be able to earn a premium,” Chandler said. “We have got to be in the specialty business, whether it’s wine or olive oil.”

However, Paul Vossen, a tree crop adviser with University of California Cooperative Extension in Sonoma thinks California growers can compete in the global market. Today the state accounts for about 80 percent of all almonds grown in the world. It wasn’t always so.

“Spain was the No. 1 producer of almonds in the world, and all of a sudden here comes California,” he said. “Why is that? It’s all mechanical.”

In the state’s highly automated almond harvest, nuts are shaken from trees, gathered and processed with almost no direct human handling.

Olives grown in super-high-density orchards can be similarly automated, he said.

“We are at a point with olive oil we can do the exact same thing.”

Stockton developer Fritz Grupe last fall planted 220 acres of olive trees in Lodi, and remains convinced that he made a good investment.

Grupe said he changed a pasture into an orchard after talking with Dino Cortopassi, a principal of Corto Olive.

“As one of the participants, I’m happy to see him expand his operation,” Grupe said.

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