Wednesday, December 12, 2012

3rd Annual Community Olive Harvest

Information for Olive Harvest Volunteers

What: An olive harvest to benefit Harmony Health Family Resource Center and other local nonprofit groups.

When: Saturday, December 15, 2012
                  Start Time: 10am
                  End Time:  3pm

Come any time between 10am and 3pm. Please plan to spend at least one or two hours harvesting--or more, if you think you are up for it!

What to Wear and Bring: Olive picking can be messy (and oily), so please wear sturdy old clothes and sturdy shoes or boots. It could be muddy, too. You can pick the olives with your bare hands, but if you can bring any harvesting rakes or harvesting poles or other fruit harvesting equipment, we can probably use it! It would be great if you could bring one or more re-usable shopping bags or plastic buckets with handles to use for picking. But there will be plenty of those on hand if you can't bring any. You will need to fill out a volunteer packet when you arrive.

Where: 4249 Hammonton-Smartville Road, on the Teichert Aggregates lot. You cannot enter the main lot, so you will have to find the DIRT ROAD leading to the olive grove. Here is how:

Directions from Yuba College: 

--Take NORTH BEALE ROAD east towards Beale Air Force Base. Before you get to the Base, look for BROPHY ROAD on the LEFT hand side. 

--Take Brophy road to HAMMONTON-SMARTVILLE ROAD. Make a RIGHT on Hammonton-Smartville Road.

--Take Hammonton-Smartville Road a few hundred hards, and look on your LEFT-HAND SIDE for COLORFUL signs marking the GATE. The gate will be open, but the road is not paved, so carefully and slowly drive through the gate. The grove will be on your left side. Look for the SIGNS marking the parking area, which is behind the grove on your left side. 

--If you get lost, call 562-899-0464

Why?: For extra credit of course! Oh, and to perform service to the community, in a fun, peaceful, and possibly even educational way. If you don't know much about the pleasures of olives and olive oil and olive picking, now is your chance to find out!! 

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Freda Ehmann and Community Entrepreneurship

Freda Ehmann, "Mother of the California Olive Industry"
The Ehmann Home, in Oroville, CA
49er Olive Oil participated in the 2nd Annual Olive Festival put on by the Butte County Historical Society

For me, the least interesting part of the whole olive oil (ad)venture is actually trying to sell the stuff. I've never really worked (successfully) in sales, and now I know why--I'm just no good at it. Sales, I suppose, is where the real entrepreneurs get distinguished from the dreamers; where the men get separated from the boys, so to speak. On the other hand, in the world of California olives, it may be that the best entrepreneurs are neither men nor boys, but women.

As it turns out, perhaps the most historically significant olive entrepreneur in California was Freda Ehmann, known today as the "Mother of the California ripe olive industry". Ms. Ehmann was born in Germany, but came to the U.S. as a teenager, and when her husband died, she sold her house in Illinois and followed her son to California, where she got involved with olives.  Interestingly, Ehmann Olive Co., like 49er Olive Oil, got its start in Marysville:

Freda Ehmann's son, Edwin, was a fine china salesman with a Northern California territory, and one of his customers was a jeweler in Marysville named Herman Juch. In the late 1880s, there was a boom in olive grove planting (similar to the current one), and Mr. Juch persuaded Edwin Ehmann to invest with him in the Olive Hill Grove, which was part of an 1800 acre ranch in Yuba County. At that point, Freda Ehmann and her daughter moved from Oakland, to live in a house on the Olive Hill property.

Now, I have mentioned before in this blog that there is a corner of Yuba College known as "Olive Hill", and that on it stand two neat rows of old and very tall Mission olive trees. I have also mentioned that Beale AFB, near the campus, also has some old olive groves. Is it possible that the Olive Hill Grove where Freda Ehmann got her start included trees that are still standing at Yuba College and/or Beale AFB? Even the curator at the Ehmann Home in Oroville could not answer this question, so I am still trying to track down the answer, but this passage from a 1979 Butte County Historical Society document is intriguing, and provides other clues to Ms. Ehmann's entrepreneurial spirit:

"The winter of 1894-95 was a severe winter with exceedingly heavy rainfall. From her home on Olive Hill, topping the first rise as you come out of Marysville on the Loma Rica road, Freda could look over a valley which seemed a single sheet of water. At the same time, in line with a general business depression, olive prices and the value of olive properties fell. Herman Juch was bankrupt, and Edwin lost his entire investment in Olive Hill, including all of Freda's money from the sale of her Illinois home. In 1895 to make some amends, Mr. Juch deeded another 20 acre olive grove in Yuba County to Mrs. Ehmann. At age 56 Freda found herself in a new state, her savings gone, her sole tangible asset a 20 acre olive orchard of dubious value"
                                                --"Freda Ehmann", by Walter Bolles and Gertrude N. Barley, 1979,  Diggin's: Journal of the Butte County Historical Society, V. 23, No. 3

In the mythology surrounding Freda Ehmann, it is often claimed--incorrectly--that she "invented" the process for turning fresh olives into the perfect black pearls we eat on pizzas today. But while the heroes of American entrepreneurship mostly have been men known as "Great Inventors" (e.g., Edison, Ford, Disney, Jobs, Zuckerberg, etc.), some claim that Ehmann's brand of entrepreneurship was distinctly feminine, defined by patience and attention to detail, rather than by bold strokes of novelty or quantity. So while she did not invent cured olives,

"...what she did do was to take a crude recipe and, by endless experiment, improve it until she had achieved a stable product of superior quality. She worked to preserve the natural color of the olive, to retain a high percentage of oil and a delicate flavor, and to insure keeping quality. Where science and chemical exactness had failed, the experience and care of a skillful and conscientious housewife succeeded." (Bolles and Barley, 1979)

While I think it is of dubious value to define "female entrepreneurs" as somehow different from "male entrepreneurs", I do think it is worthwhile to consider that Ms. Ehmann's approach to her olive enterprise was distinct from that of mainstream businessmen of the time, including her son's. Whereas he had hoped to make a fortune by simply investing financial capital in an olive grove, and sitting back and reaping profits, Ms. Ehmann had lost a fortune using this model, and instead, saw that investing various forms of equity--especially her own physical and mental labor--was the key to building a successful olive venture. Of course, the experiences of being a woman in Victorian Era America probably helps explain Ehmann's different orientation, but I would prefer to see her brand of entrepreneurship as a kind of "community entrepreneurship", rather than labeling it as "feminine". I believe it is fair to say that she saw olive production as a collective activity that can help build healthy communities, rather than simply as a money-making proposition. For her, success was defined not simply in terms of how much product she sold, but was measured in other ways as well. For example, she insisted that quality mattered more than quantity; She believed in enacting Christian values in her factory, which, among other things, included special dining rooms for the girls working there, where Ms. Ehmann also lunched, and later, a special dining room for the men; She hired Japanese workers when others discriminated against them, and paid them the same wages as the white workers; She believed in human uplift, and supported the Suffrage and Temperance movements; and she went around the world, yes, to market Ehmann olives, but more than that, to create a community around California olives. Here is Freda in her own words, and, interestingly enough, she is talking about olive oil (which Ehmann Olive Co also produced), in terms that are actually still relevant today:

So although I am not fond of trying to sell 49er Olive Oil, I am happy to report that over a case was sold at the 2nd Annual Olive Festival in Oroville, put on at the Ehmann House by the Butte County Historical Society. Butte County claims Freda as its own, since that is where Ehmann Olive Company was located for many years, but 49er Olive Oil can claim to have originated in practically the same spot as Ehmann Olive Co., so it is fitting that we had a table at the festival, and I think Freda herself smiled down on the effort.

The 49er Olive Oil booth at the 2nd Annual Olive Festival in Oroville--the food and recipes were provided by the festival

This week I also shipped two bottles of 49er Olive Oil to another successful entrepreneurial woman who cares about carefully preparing quality food: Aviva Goldfarb, author of The Six-O'clock Scramble cookbooks, and host of, a website and meal-planning service. Aviva and I are old friends, but I think her interest in 49er Olive Oil is apart from that, and that it reflects parallels between the concept of "community entrepreneurship" and Aviva's work as a food/family/community guru. Aviva does not just write and sell cookbooks; She initially started, I believe, by building a mailing list of other moms who were facing food-preparation challenges, and sharing recipes and ideas with them. That is, she started by building a community, and later, this developed into various business ventures, and still, for Aviva, the ultimate goal seems to be growing a community of parents who can help each other live better, rather than just selling products and services. Like Freda Ehmann, Aviva's experiences as a woman probably helped define her approach, but again, I think the result is not so much a female-oriented enterprise, as much as a community-oriented one.

Of course my own approach to entrepreneurship has been heavily influenced by Rachel Farrell, founder of Harmony Health Family Resource Center, and its Eating Well Cafe, and owner of Harmony Health Medical Clinic, Baby Buddies Birth Center, and a Linda Laundry. Rachel is currently in the process of merging the Medical Clinic with the Resource Center to create a larger role for Harmony Health as a nonprofit rural medical clinic. So while Rachel probably can profit individually more handsomely if she maintains ownership of a private medical clinic, her goal of transforming the clinic into a nonprofit reflects her broader definition of the bottom line as including what is best for the community and her patients, rather than what is best for her bank account. By merging the clinic with the resource center, both enterprises will be able to function more optimally, and, more importantly, both the patients of the clinic and the clients of the resource center will have more services available to them, which should improve their outcomes. What Rachel knows, and what she has taught me and many in the community, is that for sick people to get well, they need a healthy community to live in, for healthy communities to thrive, they need access to quality medical and social services. So in some ways, the Clinic and the Resource Center were always working together towards the same goals, but now, they will become one larger community enterprise.

Darro and Olivia Grieco, building the olive community at the Olive Festival

Berkeley Olive Grove 1913 was also at the Oroville Olive Festival, and they evidently sold quite a few cases. Darro and Olivia Grieco are excellent community entrepreneurs, who not only focus on producing excellent quality oil--Their late harvest Mission oil (which, to my tastebuds, is basically indistinguishable from 49er Olive Oil's Vintage Mission oil, and of course, it came from the same grove and harvest period) won Best in Show at the Los Angeles Olive Oil Competition--they also spend a great deal of time and effort building a community around olive oil. For example, they pack up their truck every Saturday to drive to Berkeley Farmer's Market to sell oil, but the real profit there is the chance to chat up folks at they come by, and to share the many materials Olivia has created to help folks understand how to appreciate olive oil--hand outs, posters, cards, etc. packed with information.

Recently I was contacted by a group of growers from Dobbins/Oregon House in Yuba County to talk about partnering with Yuba College to promote local/slow agriculture. Calling themselves "North Yuba Grown", this group aims not only to expand the market for the wonderful produce being grown in the Yuba Foothills, but to contribute to the economic and physical health of the county. I am still learning about them and their plans, but clearly they, too, see the benefits of building a community of growers and consumers, for the mutual benefit of each. Yesterday I got to go on a farm tour put on just for us by North Yuba Grown, and, based on the Lavender Lemonade, Lavender Ice Cream,  organic salad greens and chicken eggs, rustic bread, and Apollo Olive Oil and Apollo Balsamic Vinegar they fed us, I can say that I am so far a True Believer in North Yuba Grown. They are a community of entrepreneurs who are taking community entrepreneurship in a delicious direction.

 As much as I dislike selling olive oil, the 2012 batch of Vintage Mission 49er Olive Oil is nearly sold out. There are still bottles available at The Eating Well, but most of the cases I have been trying to move, have moved. Who knows what the coming harvest season will bring? The crop looks to be a good one, but I am not sure yet where and when our next Community Olive Harvest will be. Stay tuned!

Today is the 100th birthday of Woody Guthrie, the legendary bard who wrote "This Land is Your Land". Woody always knew that healthy food, healthy communities, and healthy economic relationships all go together:

Pastures of Plenty
Words and Music by Woody Guthrie

It's a mighty hard row that my poor hands have hoed
My poor feet have traveled a hot dusty road
Out of your Dust Bowl and Westward we rolled
And your deserts were hot and your mountains were cold
I worked in your orchards of peaches and prunes
I slept on the ground in the light of the moon
On the edge of the city you'll see us and then
We come with the dust and we go with the wind
California, Arizona, I harvest your crops
Well it's North up to Oregon to gather your hops
Dig the beets from your ground, cut the grapes from your vine
To set on your table your light sparkling wine
Green pastures of plenty from dry desert ground
From the Grand Coulee Dam where the waters run down
Every state in the Union us migrants have been
We'll work in this fight and we'll fight till we win
It's always we rambled, that river and I
All along your green valley, I will work till I die
My land I'll defend with my life if it be
Cause my pastures of plenty must always be free

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Popcorn Economy

"Olive, My Love", a music video of the 2012 Community Olive Harvest

Of course the big news since my last post is the successful completion of the Second Annual Community Olive Harvest. The video above tells the story, and if a picture is worth a thousand words, then video, at 24 frames per second, can be a prodigious storyteller. In any event, I can't really put into words the joy I experience while picking olives with others, on a beautiful day, in a gorgeous spot, all for the purpose of raising funds for a good cause, so the video, hopefully, captures some of that experience, and perhaps can help attract others to future events. Darro and Olivia, for their part, have been busily preparing their property to receive agritourists. I was not able to go, but earlier this week they held a catered event in their newly tiled and painted tasting room, and I'm told that they successfully created a few new converts to the olive oil faith, and specifically, to Berkeley Olive Groves 1913's early and late oils. Meanwhile, other olive oil producers seem to be pursuing the similar goals of creating educational olive oil agritourism experiences. Lucero Olive Oil, for example, has been holding events with tastings, live music, mill tours, etc. and indeed, the whole town of Corning is branding itself as a destination spot for olive oil afficionados. Joe Mueller, who used to manage the Teichert Grove, is now working with a group in the Capay Valley to develop some sort of olive oil attraction. I do not know the details yet, but I think there may be a connection to the Indian tribe that runs the Cache Valley Casino. Sounds big.  

In short many in the olive oil industry seem to realize that in order to grow, more Americans need to be educated about and turned on to olive oil, but on the other hand, there still seems to me to be quite a bit of elitism in the industry that prevents it from doing all it could/should to expand appreciation for olive oil. For example, one often hears the observation that UC Davis is going to do for olive oil what it did for the wine industry--i.e., take it from a small, hobby-based community to a global industry, and that today, the California olive oil industry is where the wine industry was in the early 70s or so. But I personally don't think the wine industry should be the role model for the California olive oil community. Wine is an often overpriced product in this country, whose cultural meaning is associated with things like snobbery, pretentiousness, and elitism. Drinking wine seems to require considerable stores of both financial capital and cultural capital (i.e., knowledge and ability to appreciate wine). But while this sort of exclusivity works well for wine producers (or at least did when the economy was booming and folks had discretionary spending for luxury goods), I believe American olive oil should strive to be accessible as opposed to exclusive, and simple to understand, as opposed to complex and aloof. I got to see Tom Mueller's book release event for Extra Virginity at UC Davis, and he likes to refer to extra virgin olive oil as "fresh fruit juice" because he thinks this will help demystify the substance and help consumers correctly distinguish between imported oils and the fresher domestic ones. In that sense, he is pushing olive oil in the direction of American beer makers, who, I believe, also challenged European imports by comparing beer to "fresh bread", and marketing American beers as fresher and therefore superior to imported beers. I certainly agree with the goals of demystifying olive oil and emphasizing freshness and domestic production as key selling points, but I don't find the "fruit juice" metaphor very appealing for some reason. It just seems sort of patronizing to refer to oil as juice, because it is not accurate, and therefore sort of dishonest. Olive oil is not olive juice, so why call it that? If the main problem with European oils, according to Tom Mueller, is their lack of honesty, then why is calling olive oil "juice" better? A better strategy for the industry, it seems to me, is to stop defining California olive oil in opposition to European oil, and to promote it simply as a healthy, tasty, useful product made in California for the American consumer.

From l to r: Olive Oyl Popped Corn, a Whirley-Pop, one of the last bottles of last year's 49er Olive Oil

So, I was happy to receive a package of Olive Oyl Popped Corn that my wife picked up at The Nugget  Market (speaking of overpriced and snobby...). Here is a product that promotes olive oil for the right reasons--it is a healthier, tastier fat to use to make popped corn than alternatives like butter--but does so matter-of-factly, in a distinctly American cultural frame--no images of Italian villas or ancient vined columns here, just Popeye's girlfriend in all her gawky glory. And it is good! Of course, the oil they used to pop the corn probably came from Italy, but you can't have everything! Unless, of course, you purchase a Whirley-Pop, which I did for my wife for Christmas. With this handy-dandy gizmo you can use a tablespoon of 49er Olive Oil (or your favorite brand of California olive oil) to make a half-cup of delicious, healthy popped corn in less time than the microwave stuff! That is, if you can find popping corn anywhere in your community, which unfortunately I could not in mine during X-mas time, so we couldn't try out the Whirly-Pop right away. Which brings me to my theory of the Popcorn Economy:

When the economy was booming and American consumerism was at its high point, microwave popcorn virtually replaced old-fashioned popping corn. Why make your own, when Orville Redenbacher would do it for you, in a variety of mouth-watering flavors? But in the current economy, folks seem to be embracing a range of domestic pleasures, possibly while enjoying "staycations" and a general reduction in their rate of discretionary spending. So, when I got the Whirley-Pop, it was the last one in the store (and showed signs of being returned already, so the store may have been sold out of Whirly-Pops at some point), and then, when I went to the grocery store to buy popping corn, there wasn't any. When I asked the clerk about it, we went to the popcorn area, which featured almost an entire aisle of microwave popcorns, but only one sliver of shelf space for pop corn kernels, and they were completely sold out. Same story at two other grocery stores in town--sold out of regular pop corn kernels. So my theory is that popping one's own corn has become popular again, because it is cheaper, more fun, and healthier for one's family than nuking some kernels in a "this side up" package marinating in real imitation movie theater butter-like topping. Only the popcorn industry hasn't caught up yet, so the stores are quickly selling out of Whirly-Pops and kernels. If my theory is correct, then Olive Oyl Popped Corn may not have a corner on the olive oil-popcorn market, and folks will also buy olive oil to make their own home-made popcorn.  Anyway, I finally did find some kernels to pop, but...

The kernels I bought are from Pop Secret (a major producer of microwave popcorn), and although American food labels generally seem to have less information than food labels in many European nations, this label does reveal a few secrets about Pop Secret. One is that the company evidently uses a proprietary crop known as "Pop Secret Premium Jumbo Popping Corn", and the other is that Pop Secret is really a product from Diamond Foods, a major food producer in California's Central Valley. I am not quite sure how it would be possible to copyright corn, unless Diamond is using genetically-modified organisms (GMOs), but my point is that my quest to pop an honest bowl of popcorn for my family is incomplete: Even when I did find actual kernels to pop in the Whirley-Pop, they are more like real imitation corn kernels, complete with their own corporate trademark,  than a simple grain grown in the earth, somewhere reasonably close by. The Whirley-Pop, for its part, was bought at Target, a large French multinational, but it is produced by Wabash Valley Farms, in Indiana, and seems to me to be an example of good, old-fashioned American ingenuity and quality craftsmanship. In the Popcorn Economy, we need more enterprises like Wabash Family Farms, who offer products their workers are ostensibly proud to make and sell, and that families are happy to buy and use, and fewer companies like Pop Secret, which sells a slickly packaged product that may or may not be very honest in terms of how it is made and labeled. In such an economy, I think consumers would embrace a California olive oil that is presented as fresh, simple, and real (especially if it is inexpensive), but they might turn away from California olive oils that are presented as highly sophisticated,  exotic, or status-conferring. I'm not saying the California Olive Oil Council should take a cue from the California Raisin Advisory Board and start airing TV commercials with singing animated olives (Though the Led Zeppelin tune in the video above could be pretty cute!), but if all of the industry's outreach is in exclusive places like Napa and Whole Foods and to the affluent folks who frequent them, I doubt the industry will grow in the ways imagined by its current leaders. Regular folks need and deserve to be clued into the benefits of olives, too. Olive Power to the People!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Community Olive Harvest, 2011

Saturday Morning Update: The Community Olive Harvest is on. The weather should be perfect. See you at 9am at Harmony Health, or after 10am in Oroville. Please read the information below if you haven't yet.

Information for Olive Harvest Volunteers

What: A day of picking olives in the beautiful and historic Berkeley Olive Grove in Oroville. Our goal is to harvest 1 ton of olives that will be milled into extra virgin olive oil that will be sold to benefit Harmony Health Family Resource Center.

Where: Berkeley Olive Grove, near Oroville. Driving directions from Marysville are provided below, but if possible, please plan to meet at Harmony Health Family Resource Center on the morning of the event.

When: Saturday, December 3, 2011.
9:00am: Volunteers meet at the Harmony Health Family Resource Center, 1908 North Beale Rd All volunteers must fill out waivers and medical emergency forms. Volunteers are responsible for their own transportation, but carpooling is encouraged.

If you need to come to the harvest event later, please follow the directions below. If you get lost, or can't find us in the grove, please call Marc Flacks' cell phone: 562-899-0464

10:00am: Olive picking begins. If you are coming to Oroville on your own, please plan to arrive at 10:00am or later. We will be harvesting until about 4pm. So please plan to arrive no later than 3pm. All Volunteers are asked to contribute at least one hour of picking.  

4pm: Olive picking concludes. Olives transported to Palermo for milling.

Directions (from Marysville) : Take Hwy 70 North to Oroville. Go past the city of Oroville and stay on HWY 70 North toward Quincy.

Exit HWY 70 at Table Mountain Rd.

Make a right off the Table Mountain Rd exit,  and follow Table Mountain Rd. past Coal Canyon Rd, until you see a GATE on your left that will be marked with event signs and balloons.

Make a left through the gate, and follow the dirt road through the orchard until you get to another event sign on your right hand side.

Make a right at the sign, and follow the dirt road to the parking/harvesting area.

Please call Marc Flacks' cell phone 562-899-0464 if you get lost or can't find us.

What to bring: Please wear sturdy old shoes and clothes. If you have them, 5 gallon buckets and/or re-usable shopping bags are great for harvesting, but these can also be provided.

What if it rains?: If it is raining on Saturday morning, we will cancel this harvest event, but  Please check this website on Saturday morning for up-to-date information on whether the event is cancelled or not, or for other last minute information.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Come Into My Parlor: Further Entanglement in the World Wide Web of the Olive Tree

One of the many large spiders awaiting their prey in the Teichert grove back in August.

When I went out to the Teichert grove in August to check on the fruit set I was greeted by large spiders--and not much else... Most of the trees were completely bare, and the trees that were fruited were sparsely so. The same seemed to be true out at Beale AFB when I took a trip out there a few days later. Still, Chuck Carroll, a Natural Resources Manager at the Base, and I have continued working to get permission to harvest there. Growers around the whole state, though, are reporting a vastly reduced crop this year, and the causes--weather patterns and the alternate bearing tendencies of the olive tree--would seem to fall on feral olive groves like Teichert's and the Base's especially hard. That's because dry farming, hand harvesting, and insufficient pruning all, I believe, tend to make the alternate bearing effect more pronounced.

So I was extremely gratified to have been contacted in mid-October by Olivia and Darro Grieco, owners of Berkeley Olive Grove, near Oroville. This is the same olive grove that was planted by the Berkeley professors I wrote about a few posts back! They are an amazing couple who have invested their net worth in 400 acres of beautiful, vintage olive trees, including some historic buildings. Unlike the spiders, they warmly welcomed me into their olive adventure--as well as their parlor (which in this case is a trailer abutting the stone house, now in disrepair, built by the Berkeley professors--the stone house pictured on their olive oil label). The Grieco's goals, assets and sensibilities, are neatly aligned with those of 49er Olive Oil: Darro and Olivia want to produce hand-crafted premium quality organic olive oil (indeed, they already do, and have five gold medals this year alone to prove it); they want to preserve their historic grove in perpetuity--Darro calls them "1000 year trees"; and they want to educate the general public about the joys, benefits, and wonders of olive trees, olives, and olive oil. Meanwhile, 49er Olive Oil needs access to trees that are capable of producing at least a ton or so of olives (which would be double our production last year), but not capable of producing a commercially valuable crop (because our model relies on working trees that commercial interests prefer to ignore). Darro and Olivia still have hundreds of acres of un-refurbished trees, so we've agreed to partner, on the theory that I, through my connection and work with Harmony Health Family Resource Center and Yuba College, can help them achieve their goals, and that their olive trees can help 49er Olive Oil and Harmony Health FRC achieve ours. Of course, while I am the main proponent of this theory, I am also among its foremost skeptics... Yet, since the Berkeley Olive Grove was originally established by college professors with little expertise or experience in agriculture, much less olives, it may make sense that someone like me would be involved in helping bring the grove into its next century of successful operation. At least that is what I have led Darro and Olivia to believe...

In any event, the Griecos, like me, are dreamers, and at this point we are dreaming big: We are developing a shared vision where Berkeley Olive Grove could become more than a boutique olive oil operation, and evolve into an "agritourism" destination, where the general public can learn about olives and olive oil, participate in olive processing and oil production, and acquire a range of olive-related products and services. The Sacramento region has other hugely popular agritourism destinations, like Apple Hill and Bishop's Pumpkin Farm, so it seems quite plausible that an olive-themed park, where folks can experience olive picking, olive milling, olive oil tasting, olive curing, olive history, and olive treats, as well as ancillary attractions like pony rides, a store/cafe, and possibly a pumpkin patch and/or Christmas Tree farm, would be successful as well. It would be great, too, if such a facility adhered to "community entrepreneurship" principles, e.g., by operating as a nonprofit, and giving other nonprofit organizations and educational institutions opportunities to be involved and possibly generate operational revenue. A nonprofit operation could be in a position to receive various kinds of grants, and perhaps even attract underwriting from big players in the California olive oil industry. Yes, these are large, long-term visions, but some fundamental prerequisites appear to be in place--e.g., an exquisite piece of property with acre after acre of beautiful, gnarly, older trees held by progressive, forward-looking landowners; an expanding domestic olive industry that is in  need of educating average consumers if it is to achieve its long term growth goals; a burgeoning movement around local food and agriculture; etc.

This vision got a bit of a test last weekend when I brought my family and a small group of volunteers to harvest Barouni olives for a few hours. My daughters, who had to be dragged kicking and screaming up to Oroville for the day, had a wonderful time, and have been begging to go back. I asked Ally afterward if she thought olive-picking was fun, and she said it is, "The best!!". True, the chance to ride exceptionally sweet horses rescued by Olivia was a huge part of their enjoyment, but they also had fun picking olives, and running around in the shade of the largest trees, and pretending they were in an enchanted forest (a game which actually requires very little imagination in this particular locale). The volunteers also appeared to enjoy themselves, and to appreciate the new knowledge they gained about olives, and one of them, a Yuba College student with large family land holdings in India, reported to me that his father is now very interested in exploring potential olive opportunities in that country. So although we only managed to pick about $27.00 worth of olives, and while this financial bottom line was more than swamped by expenditures on pizza for the harvesters and transportation costs, the day was a success according to our "triple bottom line" that places new knowledge and understanding (i.e., cultural capital) and new social connections and relationships (i.e., social capital) on the "credit" side of the ledger. Financially, the day was more debit than credit, but culturally and socially, it was quite profitable, I would say. In any event, we are planning our next harvest event for December 3, and if we are able to recruit the 20-30 volunteers we hope for, we should be able to harvest enough olives to contribute positively to all three of our bottom lines.

Photo from the Marysville Appeal-Democrat article on Super High Density olive operations in the Yuba-Sutter area.

Meanwhile, the larger California olive world has had lots to be excited about since my last real post. For example:

1. California State Senator Lois Wolk's legislation to establish standards for EVOO was passed and signed by the Governor.

2. Tom Mueller, the investigative journalist who exposed the corruption in the European olive industry in a New Yorker piece a few years ago is about to release his new book on olive oil.

3. California olive oil is getting attention from national media outlets like the Wall St. Journal, and CBS News.

But while things seem to be falling into place for California's effort to produce more of the olive oil that Americans consume, these developments are not necessarily positive for small, hand-crafted operations like Berkeley Olive Grove and 49er Olive Oil. Although it is currently possible to maintain that these smaller operations produce a superior, if more costly product than what is available in most markets, the day is coming when premium California olive oil from producers like Corti and California Olive Ranch will be widely available and priced comparably to European oils, and at that point, it might be hard for the smaller California producers to compete. But that is why Berkeley Olive Grove's future may lie in "3D Capitalism", offering a multidimensional olive experience to consumers and travelers, rather than simply selling olive oil.

Darro and Olivia and I found each other through the Web, and while it is unclear at this point who has ensnared whom in their olive oil dreams, those of us caught in the silk threads of olive obsession are willing victims, and the key for all of California's olive industry, it seems to me, is to lure more Americans into this network of deliciousness, healthfulness, and conviviality. So please, come out to our harvest event on December 3, and check this space for up-to-the-minute information about it.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Operation Olive Harvest, 2011

Information for Olive Harvest Volunteers

Big news for 49er Olive Oil: We have partnered with Berkeley Olive Grove, and this season our harvest activities will take place there. Our first harvest day is planned for Saturday, November 12th. So, here is all the information for that:

What: A day of picking olives (and possibly some pruning) at Berkeley Olive Grove. We plan to harvest the Barouni olives grown there, and then process these into delicious table olives--later in the season we will harvest Mission and/or Manzanillo olives for milling into olive oil. Proceeds from the sale of these olive products will benefit Harmony Health Family Resource Center. Pizza will be provided to volunteers for lunch, and we will end our day with a chance to enjoy olive oil and other tasty treats.

Where: Berkeley Olive Grove, near Oroville, CA. Volunteers should plan to meet at 9am at the Harmony Health Family Resource Center parking lot, 1908 North Beale Rd., Marysville (one block from Yuba College). If you have to arrive later than 9am, please follow the directions to Berkeley Olive Grove provided below.

When: Saturday, November 12, 2011. Please meet at the Harmony Health Family Resource Center parking lot at 9am, so we can carpool as a group. If you need to come to the harvest event later, please follow the directions below. If you get lost, or can't find us in the grove, please call Marc Flacks' cell phone: 562-899-0464

Directions (from Marysville) : Take Hwy 70 North to Oroville. Go past the city of Oroville and stay on HWY 70 North toward Quincy.

Exit HWY 70 at Table Mountain Rd.

Make a right off the Table Mountain Rd exit, and follow Table Mountain Rd. to Coal Canyon Rd.

Make a left on Coal Canyon Road.

Make your next left on Rocky Rd. Berkeley Olive Grove will be the first house on the left. It is an old stone house, with a grey gate in front. Again, call 562-899-0464 if you get lost or can't find us.

What to bring: Please where sturdy old shoes and clothes. If you have them, we can use pole saws, a long bar chain saw, harvesting poles, ladders, and tarps.

What if it rains?: If it is raining on Saturday morning, we will cancel this harvest event. Please check this website on Saturday morning for up-to-date information on whether the harvest is a "go" or not.

Darro Grieco, owner (with wife Olivia), of Berkeley Olive Grove. Some of their 400 acres of vintage olive trees are visible in the distance.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Busted Retirement Plans and Intact Perineums (aka, The Old and the New)

Olive Hill at Yuba College, which includes a stand of very tall, old Mission olive trees

"The olives prospered, and so did the professors"
                   --Judith M. Taylor, The Olive in California: History of an Immigrant Tree

In my last post I looked at the question of whether California gold miners consumed "liquid gold", and if so, whether there was actually "49er olive oil" (i.e., olive oil produced and consumed by California gold miners) during the time of the Gold Rush. I am interested in tracing the history of California olive oil because, as I've mentioned in other previous posts, I am trying to build a "learning community" at Yuba College around olives and olive oil. So I am trying to learn about, and then hopefully share with my colleagues, all the ways that olives can connect with the courses we teach in higher education (e.g., history, economics, humanities/philosophy, literature, biology, agriculture, etc.). My hope is that by building a learning community around olives, students will have a rich and delectable opportunity to see how the knowledge they are gaining in their different classes can be integrated and synthesized by applying it to a common subject. So my first task is to get other faculty interested in teaming up to create an olive community, and unfortunately I am facing some difficulty with that. While some of my colleagues are enthusiastically interested, many others are reluctant to get on board, one, because they feel they don't know (or care) much about olives, and two, because they are--quite understandably--not too keen to alter their course structure and/or course content in order to join the community.

So I was intrigued to discover during my research that the modern olive industry in California was midwifed in part by a group of professors from UC Berkeley and the University of Nevada, none of whom had any expertise in agriculture (much less olives). At the time of WWI, Judith M. Taylor informs us, these professors received no retirement benefits from their institutions, so they decided to invest in olive orchards as a source of retirement income. The group designated English instructor Herbert W. Hill to do research and report back, and, based on his work, they chose Coal Canyon, near Oroville (just up the road from Yuba College), as the site for their investment:
The professors planted the trees and sat back to await results. During the summers, they camped in the olive orchards. Later, some of them built small retirement cottages on their property. The olives prospered, and so did the professors. By 1922, they were in full swing. It was a good investment. The olive trees continue to bear fruit, and some of their families are still involved in the olive trade [p. 64]. 

I do not know who planted the olive grove that used to occupy the land on which Yuba College now sits, but I would like to believe that if I could get a group of faculty to have a picnic under the trees on Olive Hill (see pic above), they would catch the olive bug too, and would want to be part of an olive-oriented intellectual collaboration. I spent some time at that spot the other day, and it was truly placid, beautiful, and restorative. The trees were whispering peaceful thoughts, but there was no one there--there is almost never anyone there on Olive Hill--to hear them.

Olive trees and welcoming sign at entrance to Yuba College

Memorial for Beau Armstrong, who crashed his car into an olive tree at Yuba College in 2007

On the other side of campus, though, is a stand of olive trees that shelter a different sort of message of peace (see top pic above). This is a much less pleasant spot than Olive Hill, it being the entrance to the main campus parking lot, where these trees breathe exhaust fumes all day. A car even crashed into one of the trees a few years ago, and there is still a memorial marker there for Beau Armstrong, the deceased driver (who was not a student or employee of Yuba College). But taken together, the majestic Mission trees on Olive Hill and the squat trees by the West Parking Lot have a ghostly presence on the Yuba College campus--remnants of a time when the land and the trees were used by other people for other reasons.

Spring Bloom, 2011 in the Teichert olive grove in Linda

But if olive trees help one to rest in peace, the flowers and fruit of the olive tree are harbingers of new life and renewed vitality. Along these lines, I am happy to report that 49er Olive Oil was used by Rachel Farrell to help deliver a healthy, 9 lb baby boy into the world last week. Rachel was very excited to relate that the healthy-sized baby was delivered "with an intact perineum!!", and Rachel credits a massage with the olive oil for this. While it seems entirely appropriate that Extra Virgin would have a place in women's reproductive health, I am not sure this is our most appetizing marketing angle. Still, congratulations to baby, mommy, and midwife Rachel!

Olive flower buds (and honey bees), mid-May, 2011

There is also much new life and growth in the Teichert (i.e., "our") olive grove right now. Aside from the pretty purple wildflowers all over the place, the trees themselves--well, some of them--are bling-ing with the tiny yellow pearls that will become flowers and then, hopefully, olives. I'd been seeing random trees around Yuba County, including several on the Yuba College campus, that looked like they'd been dusted in mustard powder they were so covered in buds, so I drove out to the  grove to see how things looked. Some of the trees were practically glittering yellow, but many have almost no buds at all. 

One of the profusely budding trees in the Teichert grove

The tree on the left has many budding branches; the one on the right has almost none.
I am not exactly sure of the explanation for disparities in "inflorescence" (budding and flowering) of the trees. Having conferred with Mr. Baggett (a farmer who leases land from Teichert and who is now helping us manage the grove) and others, it seems there could be a number of possibilities, from different tree varieties (it's possible that the trees in the Teichert grove include a mix of cultivars aside from Manzanillo), to differences in irrigation (some trees are in position to be able to tap into moisture from neighboring rice fields), to differences in pollination (note the bees in the top photo above), to unequal exposure to sunlight (among other possible explanations). But, in consultation with Joe Muller from Teichert, and Mr. Baggett, we have decided that the orchard management plan for now is to fertilize the trees in order to try to increase fruit set, and therefore yield, when harvest time comes in the fall. So Baggett's crew was out there last week, too, "disc-ing" the rows (using a disc mower to break up the top soil so that when fertilizer is spread, it will have a better chance of reaching the roots of the trees). The next step will be to flood irrigate the grove, which entails building some berms (i.e., long dirt mounds) around the the grove to hold the water in place as it seeps into the ground, dissolving the fertilizer granules, bringing the nutrients down to the roots. Ramon did not build berms lost season, so when he flooded the uneven ground of the grove, most of the water ran right off, or pooled in certain low spots. These methods--conventional fertilizer and flood irrigation--are "old school", but they are effective under the circumstances. We would like to transition to more earth-friendly, "new school" methods (e.g., spreading manure rather than commercial fertilizer; planting legume cover crops to provide nitrogen; drip irrigation, etc.) but Joe argues that "organic" can be a dubious term, and that these long-neglected trees need nutrients more immediately than manure and cover crops can provide them. I'm not sure we'll be able to call our grove "feral" and our oil "Wild Manzanillo" after these interventions, but such are the compromises inherent in operating a social business. 

One of the Baggett family farmers "disc-ing" the rows of the olive grove in preparation to fertilize and irrigate

The old and new schools of the California olive industry were commingled at the UC Davis Olive Center's symposium on Medium High Density olive production, a small part of which I was able to attend last month. The "California Ripe" table olive industry (old school) and the revived California olive oil industry (new school) usually occupy different universes. The UC Davis symposium, I was told by attendees, was one of the first times the two poles of the industry came together to compare notes. One vendor I spoke to laughed that you could tell the table olive guys from the olive oil folks by how they looked--table olive guys (and they were exclusively guys) looked like farmers, and came to the UC Davis venue in their work clothes and boots, while the olive oil folks looked like they'd come for a wine tasting. And in the panel discussions, you could hear that the olive oil producers were more likely to focus and rely on the latest scientific data and techniques (presented with Powerpoint, of course), whereas the table olive growers were more apt to reference their years of personal experience and intimate knowledge of what olive trees need and want. The folk/science dichotomy, though, is a bit simplistic, since the table olive guys don't really eschew scientific techniques; they just seem to prefer ammonia-based fertilizers and flooding of their fields to organic fertilizers and drip irrigation. The table olive industry, being older and more established than today's olive oil industry, may just be more committed to older technologies. But it is interesting and ironic to learn from this symposium that, while Super High Density production had seemed to be the wave of the future, Medium Density orchards, which have long been the standard in table olive production, may now be the cutting edge for California Olive Oil (due to emerging drawbacks of SHD as well as newly developed techniques for mechanical harvesting of medium density rows).

Faculty processional at Yuba College Commencement, 2011 (an old tradition held in a brand new stadium, built courtesy of Yuba County bond funds)

Old and new were also commingled during Commencement festivities at Yuba College this week (where, BTW, student volunteers sold almost two cases of 49er Olive Oil). While the Chancellor is retiring (and the District just announced the selection of a new one) and many faculty had planned to retire this year as well, a snafu in HR means that a sweet retirement package offer has had to be rescinded, and therefore several professors who thought they were retiring, are in fact staying. So, if my idea of having a picnic under the trees on Olive Hill does not pan out,  maybe my new angle for recruiting faculty to the olive learning community should be, "Olives: Helping California Professors Achieve Their Retirement Dreams since WWI".

From right, Yuba College Librarian, Elena Heilman (already recruited to the olive learning community) and  ECE Professor, Maris Wagener, and History Professor Surangi Frazier (both future recruits)