05 Nov

Olive oil milling is rapidly taking hold in S.J.

By Reed Fujii,

corto olive oilLODI – Jeff Colombini is the president of Lodi Farming, a large diversified farming operation.

Still, early last week, he found himself on a towering harvester clattering down rows of a 3-year-old olive orchard, gathering fruit destined to yield a greenish-yellow gold in the form of oil.

No, he wasn’t short of help, Colombini explained Friday. “We’ve got to know how to do it before we tell somebody else how to do it.”

That’s part of the steep learning curve faced by everybody associated with Corto Olive, an oil milling operation built a couple of years ago between Lodi and Stockton. They are among a handful pioneers beginning commodity-scale production of extra-virgin olive oil in California.

After test production of about 3,000 gallons of oil last year, the intent is to squeeze 40,000 or so gallons out of the new plant, said Brady Whitlow, president of Corto Olive. “This is our first real season.”

That will gear up to 120,000 gallons next year, and after additional expansion, the mill on Live Oak Road west of Highway 88 eventually will pump out 600,000 gallons each season.

While California farmers have long grown olives for direct consumption, planting for large-scale oil production is relatively new. And it’s expanding rapidly.

Paul Vossen, a specialty and tree-crop adviser with University of California Cooperative Extension, estimates 3,000 acres of olives for oil were planted this year, adding to roughly 10,500 acres of existing orchards.

“Yes, there’s growth, and yes, there’s a lot of farmers interested in it,” he said, but it’s still a tiny amount given current U.S. consumption of olive oil, now mostly imported.

“If we were to plant 300,000 acres – in other words, if we plant 3,000 acres a year for 100 years – then we would be able to reach enough production to meet the current demand, the 2006 demand, for olive oil in the United States,” Vossen said.

That’s the promise. The challenge will be convincing U.S. consumers to buy fresh, flavorful California oil when they are used to the taste of mild, lower-grade imports.

“They say there’s something wrong with the good stuff because they are used to the bad stuff,” observed Vossen, who offers seminars in olive oil tasting and selection.

“I can see over a period of years, … as consumers become knowledgeable about olive oil, California is going to have a tremendous opportunity.”

Whitlow said he would like to see the United States institute a rigorous system of grading olive oil, similar to standards already in place in Europe.

So what about current demand?

Whitlow didn’t share specifics. He did say, however, “I have had quite a few people calling in, reserving my oil.”

In the meantime, the folks at Corto Oil and associated Lodi Farming are gathering fruit, getting familiar with the new equipment, running the mill and tracking all the chemical and flavor aspects of the resulting oil they can think of.

“We’re doing everything possible to be as knowledgeable as we can about olive oil,” Whitlow said.

“It’s very fun,” Colombini said. “It’s very exciting being in on the start of a new industry like this.”

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