California's (olive) oil boom

New technique creating extra-virgin success

Published November 21, 2009 1:01PM (EST)

An oil boom is under way in California's agricultural heartland, as evolving tastes and a trend toward healthy fare have transformed a profession as old as civilization: olive production for the extra virgin market.

Gnarly trees picked by hand are being supplanted. This year, California's olive oil production will top 1 million gallons for the first time, the lion's share from 8-foot trees planted in hedgerows and mechanically harvested, then pressed into oil within 90 minutes.

Growers have invested millions laying the groundwork to become a player in the global olive oil market, now controlled by Spain, Italy and Greece.

In the past 10 years, roughly 7.5 million trees have been tightly planted on 12,500 acres, an experiment growers hope will make California olive oil cheaper and fresher than that of their competitors. State officials estimate that in another decade there will be 100,000 acres of hedgerow trees producing 20 million gallons of oil to help sate Americans' 75 million gallons-a-year thirst -- 99.99 percent of it now imported.

"There's a promising future ahead for this crop," says Dan Flynn, head of the Olive Research Center at UC-Davis. "With the growth in olive plantings, California could emerge as a world leader in a relatively short period of time. It might take 20 years, but that's how long it took with the other crops."

The "other crops" are almonds and canning tomatoes, once the domain of Spain and Italy but now controlled by California growers, who have the economic advantage of producing on large-scale farms.

California's oil boom results from a convergence of events that coincided with the new plantings: a chronic drought prompting farmers to seek water-sipping crops, consumers' shift toward fresh foods, their focus on heart-healthy oils, and recent findings that some oil imported as "extra virgin" might be of a lesser quality -- if it's olive oil at all.

"A lot of people believe that what is being sold as 'extra virgin olive oil' doesn't make the grade," says Flynn. A lack of government regulators allows importers to take advantage of Americans' less-discerning palates, he says.

"The best oil stays in Europe," says Claude S. Weiller of California Olive Ranch, "because Europeans, who use a lot more oil per capita than we do, are more demanding."

Californians have grown olives since the mission padres planted them along their route north. Boutique crushers create limited amounts of prized oil from century-old trees, and Lindsay near Fresno is the capital of the black canned olive market. But until the past decade, there hasn't been a move to build the oil equivalent of wine's Gallo to satisfy the U.S. mass-market demand.

"Everyone makes it the boutique way and it doesn't scale," Weiller says. "They make great oil, but not great oil available to 300 million Americans, so the industry has been kind of stuck."

In 2003, planting took off after years of tests showed hedgerows that cram 600 trees to an acre, instead of 150, produce olives just as flavorful. In 2007, the value of olives in California increased by 378 percent over 2006, and olives jumped from 66 to 43 on the list of California's top 400 commodities.

Of the three Central Valley processors planting hedgerows, the largest is California Olive Ranch, with headquarters in Oroville and a 1 million gallon crushing plant here in Artois.

In each of the past three years, the company, with 10,000 acres and counting, has doubled its production. This month food lovers' esteemed Cook's Illustrated magazine rated their "nutty, fruity" oil, which sells in half-liter bottles online for $13.97, just a fraction of a point under their test-kitchen favorite Columela from Spain, which retails for $22.95 at Sur la Table.

The company's oils are distributed in California, but officials hope for nationwide distribution as production ramps up.

"Over time, we will be producing oil at a cost lower than our competitors," says Weiller, vice president of sales and marketing. "If they don't change their production methods, we have a leg up. If they do, we have a three-to-four year advantage."


By Tracie Cone

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Agriculture California Food