For much of the last century, California olive farming has focused on the pitted black table variety that children — and some adults...
OROVILLE, Calif. — For much of the last century, California olive farming has focused on the pitted black table variety that children — and some adults — like to eat off their fingertips. It’s been a tiny niche in the global olive industry.
But now, growers, using farming techniques typically found in a vineyard, think they can turn the Golden State into an olive-oil force — one that can compete profitably with the big European producers that dominate the U.S. market.
High-density plantings, mechanized harvesting and investment in olive mills are enabling California’s olive-oil industry to take on the rest of the world, where hand-picking and traditional, widely spaced orchards are the rule.
California farmers this year will plant about 2,000 acres of olive trees for oil production, expanding the amount of land devoted to the crop by about 30 percent, said Paul Vossen, an olive specialist at the University of California Extension in Sonoma.
Vossen projects that growers will continue to add that many acres a year through at least 2009. That would put the state’s olive-oil industry, in production terms, on a par with France’s industry.
The growers are expanding at a propitious time, said Darrell Corti, an olive-oil expert at Corti Brothers gourmet supermarket in Sacramento.
A drought and other problems have cut production across much of Italy and Spain, driving up the price of imported oil.
At the same time, European Union officials are looking at phasing out subsidies for the industry, which amount to about 35 cents for every 16.9-ounce bottle sold in the United States.
And the U.S. Department of Agriculture is expected to revise its olive-oil standard, instituting a stricter definition of what constitutes “extra virgin”-grade olive oil.
That’s likely to stop a practice by some European and other importers of blending different grades and types of oils but still labeling the product “extra virgin” when it is sold in the United States, Vossen said.
Such a move would drive up the price of higher-grade oils and make California production more competitive, he said.
A prime example of the state’s productivity is California Olive Ranch in Oroville, about 65 miles north of Sacramento. Anyone driving by the ranch could easily mistake it for yet another of California’s ubiquitous vineyards.
Each of the 320,000 trees is meticulously spaced 5 feet apart, supported by a trellis system similar to what a visitor would see in Napa Valley. This allows the ranch to pack 675 trees into the same space occupied by 120 at a traditional European olive farm.
During harvest, modified mechanical grape pickers scoot through the rows, stripping the trees of fruit, which is quickly taken to the adjacent mill.
“We can go from trees to oil in just 90 minutes,” said Alan Greene, general manager of the ranch.
Using the mechanical picker, a two-person harvest team can collect in an hour what it takes 40 people to pick by hand in much of the world, Greene said.
And processing speed is one of the key ingredients of quality olive oil, Corti said. “Get good fruit and work it quickly; that’s what you need.”
Except for a brief period when olive-oil supplies were cut off by World War II, California farmers focused on table olives that could be pitted and canned and used for sauces, pizza, salads and snacks. The state still supplies most of the nation’s black olives.
By the mid-1990s, the acreage devoted to olive oil had not grown from that farmed 125 years earlier. At the end of last year, just 16 percent of California’s roughly 40,000 acres of olive orchards were devoted to oil production.
Only in the last decade has interest in oil production resurfaced, starting with small-scale plantings by gourmets and vintners, mostly in northern California.
California produced 383,000 gallons of olive oil last year, Vossen said. That’s a 25 percent gain over 2003.