How this community-driven olive oil company is changing the status quo

EXAU is lifting up southern Italian olive farmers and paving the way for Black-owned businesses in the US

By Ryanwalkerhartshorn
March 29, 2021 8:47PM (UTC)
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Traditional baked bread sliced cake with onion, herbs and cheese in ceramic dish served with olive oil on blue and white tablecloth. (Photo by: Natasha Breen/REDA&CO/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

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Skyler Mapes is obsessed with her trees. A Bay Area native, she and her third-generation Calabrian husband, Giuseppe Morisani, own 10 acres of olive trees in La Castella, Italy — and they tend to them like they're their children. "Can you imagine what a 500-year-old olive tree would have to say if it could talk? It would have so many things to say. I would listen to that podcast," Mapes tells me through her big, toothy grin beaming across our Zoom screens.

For EXAU, the trees are just where their business starts. Mapes and Morisani oversee everything from the tending of those trees to the pressing of the olives to the bottling of oil and final distribution of their product. In short, they're involved in every aspect possible.

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In a market as giant —and rapidly growing — as olive oil, this isn't always the case. As The New Yorker reports, "In the past decade, olive-oil consumption has risen 35% in southern Europe, its traditional market, and more than 100% in North America. Much of the growth is due to the increasing prestige of the highest-quality olive oil, extra-virgin." Production has followed suit. When you go to the grocery store, dozens of brands line the wall, and the choices are overwhelming. You might even find yourself whipping out your phone to do a quick Google search for "the best extra-virgin olive oil brands" — because, like me, you're struggling to interpret and trust the labels.

The long and short of it is that the quality of extra-virgin olive oil depends on various factors, including type of soil, climate conditions, farming techniques, and methods of extraction. To make matters more confusing, it is no secret that this industry has been racked by fraud, with millions of consumers around the world regularly paying for "extra-virgin" olive oil that is cut with inferior olive oil, mixed with cheaper oils like canola and sunflower, or colored with beta-carotene or chlorophyll.

In response to decades of fraudulent activity, The International Olive Council, established in 1959, was the first organization to set industry standards and rules. E.U. law states that for olive oil to be considered high quality, the oil must be made exclusively by physical means (press or centrifuge) and meet 32 chemical requirements, including having "free acidity" of no more than 0.8%. At any moment, these council members can form panels and call products in for testing.

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For Mapes and Morisani, these measures address only part of the problem. In the U.S., the FDA requires brands to reveal their country of origin on the label, but not the traceability of their olive oil. This means larger brands can purchase oil from any region throughout Italy, and take it back to be bottled and labeled in their own facilities. And while the Italian Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Forestry has introduced tracciabilità — a tracing method in which olives and olive oil are linked to the facility where they are stored and the mill where they are pressed — it is not a requirement.

What does this mean for southern farmers like Mapes and Morisani? Despite the region being home to 82% of the country's olive oil production, the couple feels it consistently doesn't get its due acclaim — within the industry itself, and in turn from the media. This dynamic is reinforced by an ever-changing price per liter of oil set by the industry itself, which values northern oil above southern. "It's like gold. It's always moving," Mapes explains. Two major regions (Puglia and Calabria) have lower oil prices because the production is high. In the north, where production is lower, the price starts to go up. Buyers seeking the lowest price per liter thus end up shortchanging southern farmers.

In addition to this flux of oil prices, Mapes and Morisani face their own unique set of challenges with labeling and distribution. Mapes recalled a time early on in EXAU's history, when Morisani reached out to a label company in northern Italy. "You remember the label company, when she paused after she heard your accent?" Morisani laughs. "The moment they hear us, they're like, 'Oh, you're from Calabria.' " Mapes ended up taking that call.

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In the States, the couple found the opposite to be true. "I called a buyer one day and they just didn't even give me the time of day. They ignored me. Giuseppe calls, he got a meeting with them two days later." Mapes, who is one of only a few Black womxn in olive oil production, faces many market, economic, and sociocultural barriers to success in business, which is not an uncommon experience among Black women entrepreneurs.

In spite of these odds, Mapes and Morisani have two aims: to raise the profile of the robust southern Italian olive-growing region and to pave the way for the success of a small Black-owned business in the U.S. Here, they share more about their journey navigating the slippery olive oil industry and their plans to continue supporting their local community — not to mention how they came to produce an olive oil that has since gained a cult following (it has a literal waiting list!).

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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Can you tell me about what your days are like as an olive oil producer?

Mapes: Step one starts with the trees. As an olive oil producer, your main job is a year's work of tending to your trees — trimming and spraying to disinfect. The product and oil is the last part.

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Morisani: Right now, we're putting the manure on the soil, taking care of the drainage, and making sure the leaves are treated well. It's the little parts that make the difference.

Mapes: When we have to put manure on the property, I always put on dirty clothes. Black jeans and a dirty tank top with a dirty sweater and my hair in a bun, because it's super windy. And I wear my all-weather boots so I can tromp around in mud. Funny story. Earlier in the week, Giuseppe had thousands of pounds of manure dropped off: 2.2 tons in bags in the garage. He opens the door, and I'm like, "What the hell is this, what did you do?" And he goes, "OK, so we have to load the car." And I'm like, "What!"

Each bag weighs 25 kilos, so a little over 50 pounds! We had to carry 30 of these big bags of manure and drive to our property. Then we had to drop off each bag at each of our trees because we don't have our own tractor. Not to mention, it rained the day before. So we had to carry each bag of manure through the mud and drop it in front of each tree. Giuseppe had cut a bleach bottle in half because we didn't have a scooper. So here I am with this half a bleach bottle with the handle side down. [laughs] I used it to scoop the poop and put it onto the tree, and that is what I had to do. Worse was that the manure dried in the garage, so my body was covered in pulverized manure. Powdered poop. It's so nasty. I had to drive home with the windows down.

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Morisani: [laughing in the background] So stinky!

What is one big misconception you think people have about being an olive oil producer?

Mapes: People think harvest is a couple hours of your time. We harvest for about six to seven hours a day, but then after that is the milling, and then after that is the moving of the oils. So it's actually like a 14-hour day. Once filtered, the oil is bottled, labeled, palletized and shipped to the U.S. You're not done when the olives come off the tree.

What's one of the biggest obstacles you've faced running EXAU?

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Mapes: I've had more issues in the U.S. with getting our product in the stores and calling buyers than I have had issues in Italy. This happened regularly. It got to the point where I wanted to give up on wholesale. It's one of the reasons that we went direct to consumer. We started posting more and more on social media and focusing on in-person events. Sales online started to pick up. This shift in energy felt good. We respond to our customers and our trees. That's who runs EXAU.

Are there any challenges you've come up against as a southern Italian business in particular?

Morisani: In the south, we have so much oil. Calabria and Puglia account for 63 to 67% of Italy's production of olive oil, so it's a lot.

Mapes: And when you combine that with the rest of the southern regions, the south of Italy is responsible for about 82% of all of Italy's olive oil production. So, in light of this fact, you would think southern olive oils would be given more prestige — but they're not. Because they're from the south. That is my perception.

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If Tuscany produces relatively little olive oil on its own, how is the region keeping up with global demand?

Morisani: For me, it's logical to believe that they bulk up with product from other regions in Italy, because it's impossible that this olive oil that accounts for only 2% in Italy can have a shelf in the world.

Mapes: Northern companies need a lot of oil to keep up with their demand — and want to make a profit margin. To do this, they approach southern farmers with the mindset to get the best price per liter. From there, they take this oil back to be bottled and distributed, which explains why it is difficult to find where big name brands get their oil from.

How does this process work? Can you break down what happens?

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Morisani: There are some people that are influential in the oil market. They set the price of oil every single year. It gets super competitive and the prices get very low. An intermediary or buyer comes to try and make a deal with you to purchase your oil, and then the next one will come to you trying to make a margin on the price that the previous guy made.

Mapes: It's like bidding almost. Farmers are competing to give the best price, the lowest price provided they can still make a profit. And that's when it turns into a bidding war. And these farmers are like, "I just want to get rid of this product. It's better for me to just offload this now and still make a couple bucks instead of me being stuck at the end of season and stuck the next year with a whole bunch of products."

How has this system impacted you and the folks around you?

Mapes: We have a really good friend in the business who has been approached several times by big brands. He is like, "I will not sell my integrity."

We're like, "Good for you. F*** those guys." He'll sell smaller amounts of it, so he'll still move the product, but it's more desirable to move everything at one time so you can just cash out. It's just not fair because they're shrinking the profit margin down for small brands and farmers, and it's not right.

I feel like this system is so messed up, and it makes me really sad. Even for us, we are not a huge brand, and we are grateful to be able to purchase some oil from a local farmer. Also, the smaller brands down here are starting to bottle and distribute! I'm like, "Hell yes, bottle your product!"

Morisani: There's so many people here that want to be able to export their products. But they don't even have access to the resources to be able to do that because they don't even know who to talk to. If you don't even have that base, there's no opportunity for you to even be able to succeed because you're continuously just going and doing the same thing. It's like they're stuck on this hamster wheel that someone else is cranking.

Mapes: I get so angry about the way that things are set up here because it's so unfair to people. These farmers that work their asses off and then they literally get no credit. Nobody knows. It's like their legacy and their products disappear. They just disappear.

This is a really broken system — how were you able to escape the hamster wheel?

Morisani: Before we started the company, a long time ago, someone let me down. This guy used to come on our property to test our olive oil. Every time, he acted like an expert. Every single year, he was like, "Oh, your oil is no good. It's too spicy. It's too bitter."

I said, "Dad, next time he comes, give him an older oil and a new oil and then let's see what he says." So he came back to our house. He tests the old one. He tests the new one. He likes the older one. So I said, "No, this guy doesn't understand nothing."

Mapes: [laughs] It's like a placebo. You gave him a placebo olive oil. That inspired us a bit!

Morisani: Since that day, I started to dig into more about this industry. I wanted to do something different. I became interested in my mom and dad's cultivars — which I found really interesting and so different than any other oils. I kept this thought with me for a long time, until I started the company with Skyler.

What's next for EXAU?

Mapes: Our customers have been asking us for food under oil, and that's what's next! Olives, tuna, anchovies, artichokes. We found a local guy who makes food sott'olio, "under oil." We're excited to work with the local community.

Morisani: Because we don't rush into anything, we're going to test it out, the proportions. We'll have him cure the products so we get the blend correct. This way, we're able to continue to support another local business and give our customers something they've been asking for.

Mapes: We want to support as many people locally as we can with every aspect of our business. That means getting as many things made here as we possibly can. Our mill and bottling facility are about a six- to eight-minute drive from our house. And our trees are a two-minute drive from our house! The labels are made by a local family about 40 minutes away in another direction from our house. We've worked with them for the past three years. They do an amazing job, and we're really happy with them.

Where do you feel the olive oil industry is headed?

Morisani: Lately, here, I'm seeing more small businesses, like us, bottling and exporting. I hope a lot of people can make their own oil. With quality though, not quantity. People are obsessed with this big quantity, and try to make more and more in order to make more money. But at the end of the day, for me, it's about what you bring on your table. It has to be quality. Just that. It's simple.

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Exau Food Food52 Giuseppe Morisani Interview Olive Oil Skyler Mapes