Wednesday, December 15, 2010


The weather was rainy all week, and then became sunny and beautiful the day of the harvest event

The olives were quite dark since we were harvesting pretty late, but that should not negatively affect the taste of the oil (It tastes great already, and still needs to sit for 4 weeks)

We got about thirty volunteers throughout the day, and of course, some worked harder and longer than others.

We mostly got the proverbial "low hanging fruit", but the more intrepid among us used fruit picking ladders

So the first Community Olive Harvest was a success! Regular readers know that I had already written off this year for actual oil production, but when it became clear that Ramon had left some olives on the trees, I decided to try to organize a quick and dirty harvest event, and see how much we could get. With only three days lead time, we were able to mobilize over thirty volunteers, who harvested an average of about one hour each, and we got 953 pounds of olives (one 1/2 ton bin's worth).

Lewis Johnson, of Butte View Olive Oil, moving olive bins to the milling machine hopper with forklift

Our first bottle of olive oil!!! (pic taken with cell phone)

We then took these olives to Lewis Johnson at Sutter Buttes Olive Company, who milled them into 15 gallons of fresh olive oil. He set aside one 250 ml bottle for me, and that's what I am holding in the pic above. Can you tell from the pic how good it felt to actually, finally, have some oil to show, and smell, and taste! It really seemed like "liquid gold" to me, and it was truly a "Eureka moment". The 15 gallons of oil are now in storage, settling and mellowing before we bottle it in about a month. The oil is now cloudy with sediment, because Lewis Johnson's processing method is to "mill" the olives rather than to "press" them in the traditional way. Milling is now widely regarded as superior to pressing in terms of both taste and nutrition. I am hopeful that in future years, with more of the crop available, and more time to organize the harvest event, we will increase our production dramatically.

For now, I believe we can confidently say that we have "proof of concept", in that harvesting feral olive groves with volunteer labor in order to generate revenue for nonprofit organizations does seem to be a viable "community enterprise" model. In fact, Ramon indicated that his traditional commercial model of hiring experienced olive pickers in order to generate private profit, did not pan out too well with this particular orchard. There just were not enough olives, or they were too sparse, to be able to harvest quickly enough to generate much revenue above and beyond labor costs. So that is why there were still many olives on the trees after he took his crew through, and why we were able to have a harvest after all this year. I don't know if it was a "miracle" that we got oil this year, but it certainly feels like many important stars aligned at the right moment. Here is a rough video of the actual milling of our olives. I hope to put together a more polished video of the whole effort--harvesting, milling, bottling, vending--within the next few weeks.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Operation Olive Harvest

Information for Olive Harvest Volunteers

What: An olive harvest to benefit Harmony Health Family Resource Center (Yes, we are having a harvest after all, rain or shine, come heck or high water! But please check this website on Saturday to make sure that we have not canceled the harvest unexpectedly and for other possible last minute information)

When: Saturday, December 11, 2010
                 Start Time: 10am
                 End Time:  4pm

Come any time between 10am and 4pm. 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. You will need to fill out a volunteer packet when you arrive.

Where: 4249 Hammonton-Smartville Road, on the Teichert Aggregates lot.
(See below for directions and map)

Directions from Yuba College: Take North Beale Road west towards Walmart. Turn right on Hammonton-Smartville Road. Take Hammonton-Smartville Road about 5 miles, and when you pass Brophy Road, keep a lookout for the balloons tied to a gate on your left. PLEASE BE CAREFUL as you  make a left turn onto the dirt road at that gate and follow it to the parking area.

(The directions above are not for the quickest route, necessarily, but hopefully the easiest. Check the map below for alternate routes)

View Larger Map

Why?: Well, you'd have to read this entire blog, going back several months, to get the full story, but the short answer is: To make olive oil to be marketed and sold by Sutter Buttes Olive Oil  in order to generate income for Harmony Health Family Resource Center, a community organization that assists families in Linda and the entire Yuba-Sutter area. And also, so some students can earn extra credit... 

Is this another Hanukkah olive oil miracle?: I hope so, but we will see how things go. In my last blog post I indicated that we would not be harvesting this year due to unforeseen circumstances, but then, during Hannukah, I learned that it would, in fact, be possible to have a harvest this year, and I have been trying to plan and organize the harvest within the space of about a week. Hanukkah is a celebration of "miracle" olive oil and the light it can bring during the cold winter months. So hopefully our olive harvest will be "miraculous". If things go really well, we could harvest up to a ton of olives, in which case we could make 20-40 gallons of olive oil. If we are able to sell this oil for about $10 per 250ml bottle, Harmony Health Family Resource Center could earn...well you do the math. See you Saturday I hope!

Imagine: In honor of olives and Hanukkah and peace (and the anniversary of John Lennon's death), here is a video about how Israelis and Palestinians are using olives to foster peace in that troubled region

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Claim Jumpers

This picture is from Lucero Olive Oil, an energetic family-owned company with a great web presence

The 2010 olive harvest season is well into full swing, and it saddens me greatly to report that our nonprofit olive venture is not involved this year (but the future should be brighter--read on). The story behind this disappointing fact is worth telling as it touches on themes this blog has been exploring: Community entrepreneurship as an alternative to traditional capitalism and traditional charity work and the new rush for "liquid gold" (i.e., olive oil) in Gold Rush country.

As it turns out, I am a bit of a "claim jumper". Last spring, when officials at Teichert Construction gave me the keys to their olive grove in Yuba County, Joe Muller, the Agricultural Manager of Teichert, mentioned that he had previously discussed working the grove with Ramon Corona, a farm labor contractor from Yuba City. At the time, Joe said something like, "So you'll have to make this project worthwhile for Ramon, too". So, in trying to launch this nonprofit olive oil business, this experiment in "community entrepreneurship", we had been trying to find a way to make the venture profitable for both Ramon and for Harmony Health Family Resource Center. Our original idea was for Harmony Health FRC to employ Ramon as the Orchard Manager, and to pay him out of the proceeds from the grove. Ramon had also mentioned that health insurance for him and his family might be of even more value than cash, especially given the risks to life and limb that Ramon would face in clearing and irrigating the orchard (I've mentioned the rattlesnakes and ticks Ramon has already dealt with in previous posts), so we also explored the idea of compensating Ramon with medical insurance, but this did not prove feasible. Finally, it was decided that Ramon Corona FLC and Harmony Health FRC would split the crop down the middle, and Ramon would dispose of his olives (i.e., sell them wholesale, or mill and bottle them, or cure them, etc.) as he saw fit, and Harmony Health FRC would do the same. Ramon has been extremely gracious and generous throughout these discussions, but in the end, it proved logistically (and perhaps philosophically) difficult to mesh Harmony Health's goal of launching a volunteer-based social enterprise with the traditional for-profit model used in the California olive industry.

Ramon Corona, photographed at The Eating Well
Here is one example of this logistical difficulty: Volunteer laborers like college students need to perform their service during their free time, so my goal was to complete our olive harvest on a Saturday, especially a Saturday that did not fall on the Thanksgiving holiday weekend or during finals week. However, professional olive experts plan their harvests on a moment's notice, because there is a precise moment, dictated by weather patterns and geography, when olives should be picked for optimal oil production. "Nothing," in fact, "gets more discussion among olive growers than when to pick" according to The Olive Oil Source. " It can make all the difference as far as yield, organoleptic characteristics, shelf life and color". For olive oil, the olives are at peak maturity when they reach the stage known as "veraison". From The Olive Oil Source again:

As the olive fruit matures from green to yellow-green, it starts to soften and then the skin turns red-purple in color. This is called veraison. The olives still have a high polyphenol content at this stage, and are starting to develop some ripe-fruity characteristics. Oils produced from fruit harvested at this stage have some bitterness and some pungency. They have close to a maximum amount of oil per dry weight. The olives are often considered to be at their peak for olive oil production. 

The veraison stage has come and gone for the Ascolanos in "our" grove. Ramon was not sure when that stage would hit, and he obviously could not guarantee that it would be on a Saturday in mid-November. In fact, Ramon himself was being advised on the harvest by none other than Gianni Stefanini, the Head Miller of Apollo Olive Oil, one of the most prestigious olive oil producers in the world today (e.g., 3 Gold Medals and Best of Class and Best of Show at this year's L.A. County Fair), because Apollo is going to buy the crop from Ramon. So while I had originally hoped and thought that we would have a harvest festival on Saturday November 13th, with many volunteers from Yuba College and Harmony Health FRC, Ramon decided to harvest last weekend, and simply used the same crew of professional harvesters that he has been using this harvest season for other orchards he manages up and down the Sacramento Valley. Ramon was still quite willing to include any volunteers I could rustle up, and he would have shared the crop, but in the end we decided this: Ramon will take the entire crop this year, and then he will relinquish his claim on the Teichert grove, and allow Harmony Health FRC to take over. So while there will be no Harmony Health Extra Virgin Olive Oil this year, it looks like we will be gaining full future access to a grove with Ascolanos of such high quality that they meet the standards of Apollo Olive Oil. Hopefully Ramon will continue to be involved in an advisory and consultative role. I still believe that our social enterprise approach--described in an earlier post--which simultaneously pursues financial capital, social capital, and cultural capital, can work for olive oil, but I think it is best if we do not try to meld it with the more traditional one-dimensional commercial model. Whether the oil we ultimately produce will be anything comparable in quality to that produced by the likes of Apollo is an open question, but it may be that in a venture like ours, optimal harvest timing will have to be secondary to other considerations, like the availability of volunteers.

The VIP lunch held at The Eating Well. Three officials from Teichert Construction, Lily O'Keefe Noble, Joe Muller, and Alberto Ramirez, are seated at the back end of the lower table.

Another claim jumper in this story is Mark Yudof, the President of the University of California. Back in August, Harmony Health Family Resource Center held a "VIP Lunch"  in order to discuss ideas for raising startup capital for The Eating Well restaurant. We held the lunch in the restaurant, to show folks how well it was performing just on foundation grants, and to ask the VIP attendees for ideas on how to raise some more needed funds from private "social investors". At that lunch, Joe Muller of Teichert mentioned to me a new partnership with UC Davis Olive Center, where Teichert would be donating some of the olive oil it produces on land it holds in other counties for purposes of producing a new olive oil blend that UC Davis would be marketing. Joe thought it might be possible to donate one 32 gallon drum of olive oil to Harmony Health FRC, so that even if we weren't able to harvest this year, we still would have some oil to bottle and sell under our own label. But Joe was not able to come through with that barrell, and it is my impression (just my impression!!), that the reason is that UC Davis needed ALL the oil Teichert had to donate. This is because the blend they were making was the "President's Blend", a blend chosen by Mark Yudof himself, and which uses a combination of Arbequina and Frantoio olives. I have this impression because when I followed up with Joe about his offer of the olive oil drum, he said I should talk to Dan Flynn at the UC Davis Olive Center, and when I spoke to Dan, he said they needed all the Frantoio they could get in order to make the Presidents Blend. So, putting two and two together (in my admittedly paranoid way), it appears that Harmony Health's claim on 32 gallons of Liquid Gold was jumped by that ornery prospector from Texas, Mark Yudof. Oh well, even though new revenue streams from olive oil do not appear to have slowed the UC system's rate of student fee increases, I suppose that if selling Presidents Blend olive oil helps the UC system's bottom line, it can only benefit students in the end, and that's all to the good.
Peque Oliva, a Spanish company, is among a handful of olive oil makers now marketing olive oil for babies and children
In other olive oil news, the Olive Oil Times reports that several olive oil companies are now marketing olive oil specifically for babies and children. Although Rachel Farrell, the Executive Director of Harmony Health Family Resource Center, and the owner of Harmony Health Medical Clinic, and the owner and chief midwife and doula of the soon-to-open Baby Buddies Birthing Center has known about the prenatal, neonatal and postnatal uses of olive oil for some time (she has even used olive oil in the past as an obstetric lubricant), I think she would have a thing or two to say about Peque Oliva's and others' claims that olive oil is a good substitute for the fats in the breast milk because it does not raise infant cholesterol. Rachel's passion for improving life for families in Linda is only matched by her passion about the irreplaceable benefits of breastfeeding. So while Rachel might want to punch the guys from Peque for dissing breast milk, I think she would approve of their idea of recycling olive oil containers into baby toys...

On this Veterans Day, I am thinking about peace, olives, service to country and community, and I am still trying to think of how we can expand our olive venture to include the families (and the olive groves) at Beale Air Force Base. It's harder than I thought to birth an olive venture, but slowly and surely, this baby will arrive! Happy Veteran's Day! Peace, Marc.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Fruit Set

Olives!!! Fruit set--the stage at which fertilized blossoms metamorphosize into fruit--has occurred.  The olives are beautiful, but I have to admit to being a tad disappointed. After seeing the riot of blossoms in late spring, I was hoping the trees would be drooping with the weight of olive clusters when I went out to the grove on Tuesday. Some of the branches are definitely heavy with fruit, but others are all but bare. Ramon says it would have been ideal to begin irrigating several weeks earlier, as that probably would have enhanced the fruit set, but those weeks occurred before this (ad)venture was even launched, so it was just a bit of unlucky timing. We'll get it right in future seasons. Irrigation seems to be a labor-intensive art--See the heavy pipes Ramon's been moving around in the second picture above?. It would be ideal to use drip irrigation technology in this orchard, or even better to irrigate using recycled water from the adjacent rice fields. But both of these will have to remain long-term goals, as they will take time and expense to implement. 
     The olives are bigger than I expected--I've seen other random trees in this area with smaller fruit--and that is a nice surprise. Ramon tells me we can't be entirely positive that these are Ascolanos ("Ascalano" seems to be another way to spell it) until a few more weeks have gone by. He says you can identify the variety by the shape of the fruit (e.g., rounded vs. more oblong; with a point or without; etc.) and by the size. Optimal irrigation should lead to bigger olives as well as a more abundant fruit set, so it will be interesting to see how things improve in future seasons. For now, though, it is exciting to see big green olives on the trees, not just blossoms or dessicated fruit left over from previous seasons. And in case there is any doubt that our olives are certifiably locally-grown, these pictures prove it. If you look closely, the third picture shows a T-38 Air Force jet over the olive treetops getting ready to land at Beale, and the fourth shows an olive cluster with the Sutter Buttes barely visible in the background. 

The big news in the olive industry this week is the release of a UC Davis Olive Center report on olive oil standards, which, among other things, shows that the vast majority of imported olive oil falls short of scientific definitions of "extra virgin", while the vast majority of California olive oil meets such standards. Here are the bullets from the Executive Summary:

• 69 percent of imported olive oil samples and 10 percent of California olive oil samples labeled as extravirgin olive oil failed to meet the IOC/USDA sensory (organoleptic) standards for extra virgin olive oil. The Australian sensory panel found that each of these samples scored a median of up to 3.5 sensory defects such as rancid, fusty, and musty and were classified at the lower grade of “virgin.” Sensory defects are indicators that these samples are oxidized, of poor quality, and/or adulterated with cheaper refined oils.
 • 31 percent of the imported samples that failed the sensory standards also failed the IOC/USDA
standards for UV absorbance of oxidation products (K232 and K268), which indicates that these
samples were oxidized and/or were of poor quality.
• 83 percent of the imported samples that failed the IOC/USDA sensory standards also failed the
German/Australian DAGs standard. Two additional imported samples that met the IOC/USDA
sensory standard for extra virgin failed the DAGs standard.

• 52 percent of the imported samples that failed the IOC/USDA sensory standards also failed the
German/Australian PPP standard. Two additional imported samples that had met the IOC/USDA
sensory standard for extra virgin failed the PPP standard.
• The IOC/USDA chemistry standards confirmed negative sensory results in 31 percent of cases, while
the German/Australian DAGs and PPP standards confirmed negative sensory results in 86 percent of

"No sense in being a grifter if it's the same as being a citizen" 
                   --Paul Newman as Henry Gondorf in The Sting (1973)

I need to learn a lot more about olive oil standards, especially "sensory evaluation"--What is the difference between "fusty" and "musty", exactly?--but I have to say that I am especially disappointed by this report's finding that Newman's Own Olive Oil, in two of the locations it was purchased,  failed to meet the standard for Extra Virgin Olive Oil  (hereafter, "E.V.O.O", a la Rachel Ray, whose olive oil, by the way, also failed to meet the standard in two of three purchase locations). Newman's Own, of course, is like the Godfather of Social Entrepreneurship, having raised millions for the various nonprofits it supports, and its olive oil is one I've considered as a model for our own--until now. Anyway, its not clear to me why, according to the report, Newman's Own and Rachel Ray's olive oils would meet E.V.O.O. standards when purchased in LA, but not when purchased in Sacramento or San Francisco. But until our olive oil is ready for sale, one of the only other places I have found to purchase olive oil that supports a progressive nonprofit mission (though I can't vouch for their E.V.O.O. standards) is here:

Brooklyn for Peace is vending Olive Branch Olive Oil which is produced by the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committees (PARC). They can't mail it to you, so you'll have to get it next time you're in Flatbush or Park Slope. But you can also purchase the oil directly from PARC, who does seem to equipped to ship the product long distance. I encourage readers to check out these websites and consider purchasing Olive Branch Olive Oil (at least until our nonprofit olive oil is ready, of course).

And in other interesting Middle East olive oil news, Israel has partnered with the Indian state of Rajasthan to introduce high-yielding olive trees and green growing techniques to the region. Indians, it seems, have high and growing rates of hypertension and other health problems, and their government is keen to promote olive oil consumption, while Israel, for its part, seems keen to export its olive cultivation and green agriculture technologies. The "Greening of the Negev Desert"  accomplished by the Israelis, is seen as a model for arid Rajasthan.  And just as Ramon would ideally like to bring drip irrigation and water recycling to our olive grove in Yuba County, the Israel-Rajasthan project is implementing these techniques now. According to the article in The Olive Oil Times:

Lior Weintraub, a spokesman for the Israel embassy has said, 'A project such as this, where a new kind of tree is being introduced in a water-scarce environment, hinges on the irrigation system used. So the olive project is as much about drip irrigation as it is about transforming Rajasthan into a major olive grower. The main reason the project was considered for Rajasthan was the similarities in climate and cultivation problems in the state and Israel. However, there are major differences in soil and other factors which will have to be addressed.'

Once again, it is fascinating to consider the larger--indeed global--context of our little olive (ad)venture, and to think about the larger implications for health, environmental stewardship, international collaboration, and peace. And with that, I will close this post with one more picture of our plumping olives,with a heavily irrigated rice field in the middle distance, and the Beale AFB Flight Line in the distant background:

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Eat Well. Do Good.

Ally enjoying her turkey sandwich, and that's my modified Monte Cristo sandwich with blackberry preserves above.

The Eating Well has been open for the last two weeks or so, and the food is amazingly good! Even Ally, my 6-year-old likes it, and for her, picky eating is like an art form. Here is a brief version of the long history of this cafe:

In 2007, Harmony Health Family Resource Center got a grant from the California Endowment to develop three "social enterprises"--businesses that will earn income to help sustain Harmony Health FRC's programs. At that time, we did a lot of research to figure out what kinds of businesses the community needed and wanted and which could be viable revenue sources. We held focus groups, ran informal surveys, had community discussions, talked to business and community leaders, etc. We seriously explored the idea of developing a "business incubator" and other ideas, but we ultimately settled on the idea of a cafe as our core social business, since it promised to advance a number of our goals. A cafe, we felt, could promote: 1. Healthy eating, since many of our clients have ready access to junk food and convenience store fare, but not much else (and many have the health problems--like obesity--to show for it). 2. Positive community interaction and engagement, since we envision an open, lively eatery, with wi-fi access (to help attract students, faculty, military personnel, etc.), a shaded outdoor eating area and container garden, and space for community meetings and gatherings during the evening hours. 3. Local food (and walkability)--the cafe's storefront is in a strip mall it shares with Harmony Health Family Resource Center, Harmony Health Clinic, Harmony Health Birthing Center, and a laundromat, so customers/clients/staff at these establishments can now eat at The Eating Well, instead of driving across town for a burger. Also, the cafe is trying to source most of its produce from local growers, and will attempt to encourage Air Force personnel and the Yuba College community (both of which are relatively nearby) to dine closer to home as well. The cafe has ample parking, but the more people who simply stroll over to eat or hang out, the better.

Erica (center) is one of the original teen moms who was trained at the Eating Well, and she did so well in the class, she became a trainer herself, and is now a manager of The Eating Well.

The original business plan that was developed for the cafe did not serve its purpose, but the Yuba Sutter Small Business Development Center very generously helped us to rewrite and implement the plan. Then, the Executive Director of Harmony Health (who, by the way, is Rachel Farrell, the real force of nature behind Harmony Health FRC--and all the other Harmony enterprises, both for profit and nonprofit--and who is running for the Yuba County Board of Supervisors, District 1. More about her in later posts, I hope.) wrote and got an amazing grant through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (over $200K, though this is not entirely apparent in the linked document) to use the cafe as a training center for at-risk youth (particularly teen moms), and to develop an on site childcare co-op at the cafe (so the teen mom staff would be able to care for their children while still working, and so customers of the cafe/clinic/laundromat/birthing center could have a place for their children). So before opening to the public, the cafe was a training site for youth, where after 6-weeks of classes, they received their ServSafe certificates. The students would serve lunch to live customers (mainly clinic staff) on Thursdays.

As that training program is winding down, Mike Mahler has stepped up to become the chef/manager of The Eating Well, and to shepherd it from a training site to a full-service, experimental, nonprofit, healthy-eating, environment-defending, economy-revitalizing, community-building, local-food-promoting, eatery. Mike used to own Mahler's in Marysville, which is now The Brick, an iconic coffeehouse and meeting place for the movers and shakers of Yuba County. He had to give up that business for personal reasons, but he is taking on The Eating Well project with gusto and putting in lots of his own money and time. I wanted to include a picture of him, but he moves too fast for my cell phone camera to capture a suitable image!

So once we have olive oil to sell, we hope to use the cafe as one of the vending outlets. The bottles of oil should make nice decoration for the cafe, and we hope to include other locally produced retail food products, like honey, preserves, etc. I'm still not really authorized to say so, but the construction company that is proposing to donate the olives to us is Teichert Construction, and they have 20,000 acres of agricultural land that they manage. They told us that last year alone they had to waste 700 tons of produce from their agricultural holdings (they hold land for mining, but when it is not being mined, they grow crops on it, or in any case don't remove crops already growing there, which is why they have an olive orchard in the Yuba Goldfields). And we are talking about having them donate some of these other crops--peaches, rice, etc.--to Harmony Health FRC so we can reduce our food prices at the cafe, and also create other retail food products (e.g., dried fruit; tapenade; etc.). Teichert is a union shop, they are involved in regional efforts to reduce sprawl, and they are interested in exploring biomass as an energy source for Yuba County, so I am proud of Harmony Health FRC's burgeoning relationship with them. I hope to have our partnership officially approved within the next few weeks.

So if you find yourself on or near North Beale Road, come on into The Eating Well (1908 N. Beale, Suite B, 530-742-5908 for phone takeout/catering orders). Eat well. Do Good.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

3D Capitalism?

The Sac Bee, by way of the New York Times, reports on the social networking abilities of soldiers at Beale Air Force Base (home of the U2 spy plane pictured above). Lots of interesting things in this article, but for me the personal connection is to the enlisted soldiers who put in twelve-hour shifts guzzling energy drinks to keep alert. I teach classes at Beale AFB (which is how I came to know about the feral olive groves there), and it is enlisted "airmen" like these who guzzle energy drinks to stay awake during my lectures after they've put in twelve-hour shifts on the Flight Line or spotting IED's on satellite feeds. Teaching sociology to active-duty military personnel is intense: First, military men and women always call professors "Sir", and sign their emails, "Very Respectfully"--which can feel good until you realize that these formalities can have multiple layers of meaning in a very hierarchical institution... And getting into heady discussions with airmen about ideas like "authority" and "freedom" "nationalism" "solidarity" and other key sociological concepts can be profound, especially when you consider that any moment, these folks can be deployed to "the shit", or sent to places like The Gulf (of Mexico) for humanitarian emergencies like hurricanes and oil spills. Sociology is a little less abstract to students like these.

And Beale AFB sits at the end of North Beale Road, which is the major thoroughfare that runs through Linda and on which also sit Yuba College and Harmony Health Family Resource Center. At the opposite end of North Beale Road is Wal*Mart. The several mile stretch of North Beale between the Base and the Superstore is what some in the world of community development would call a "Corridor of Shit"--lots of vacant lots and empty storefronts, punctuated by check-cashing outlets, liquor stores, junk brokers, dollar stores, etc. "Corridor of Shit" is surely an elitist phrase, but that does not make it untrue, and it is more than ironic that The Men and Women who Defend this Great Country have to drive through a corridor of shit to get to and from their 12-hour shifts on the Base. Is it too much then to say that the effort to revitalize Linda is a patriotic act? Anyway I am still dreaming that one day we will be involving the Base in our nonprofit olive venture, and I have to believe that airmen and their families would get more enjoyment from producing tasty, healthy, olive oil, then from putting their lives on the line for oil in the Gulf (either of Persia or Mexico).

And I certainly stand with those in the olive oil industry who say, "No More Reliance On Foreign Oil!", which brings me to my next item:

The Sac Bee also recently reported on a major development in the US olive oil industry--the establishment of scientific (i.e., enforceable) standards for terms like "virgin" and "extra virgin" olive oil. In my last post I alluded to the previous lack of standards, and these new standards are intended precisely to "level the playing field" so domestic olive oil producers can compete more fairly and truthfully with the imports. No mention is made in the article of establishing standards to verify terms like "domestic" and "locally grown", or of standards to regulate table olives, but it seems like things are moving in a good direction. Other developments that could help the US olive industry include the fiscal crisis in the European Union (state subsidies to olive producers could be reduced) and the pioneering work of UC Davis in developing "Super High Density" olive orchards. These are orchards where the trees are planted very close together, and kept quite short, so that a big harvesting machine can roll right over the tops of the trees and cleanly (and cheaply) pick the fruit (see the pic above). But why is the Sac Bee relying on the Associated Press to report on the California olive industry (or the New York Times to report on Beale AFB, for that matter)? Oh yeah, blogs have killed print journalism...

When I am not teaching classes at Beale, I teach them on the Yuba College campus, where my students are an amazingly diverse group, with very interesting connections to agriculture. We have white students who are descended from the "Okies" who founded Olivehurst, and who John Steinbeck did research on before writing Grapes of Wrath. Latino students who are often the children or grandchildren of migrant farmworkers. We have Hmong students whose families fled military conflict in Southeast Asia and and now work in the fields of Yuba and Sutter Counties, while often maintaining remarkable vegetable gardens at their homes with crops unfamiliar to many Americans. We have Sikh students, many of whom were raised by families that own peach orchards and/or Dried Plum (don't say "prunes"!) operations.

So, when I told my students I wanted to teach a class on Community Entrepreneurship and involve students in harvesting and processing olives, they said, "Oh, so you are sending us back to the fields"? But while it is true that many of our students come to Yuba College precisely to get away from lives of agricultural drudgery and pursue new knowledge and opportunities, I truly believe that "community entrepreneurship" offers something new and alternative to students like these.

I will be exploring the concept of community entrepreneurship further in coming posts, but for now, an idea came to me last night that I am sure I got from somewhere else (need to track down my source), but is thought-provoking to me: "Three Dimensional Capitalism". That is, we can think of "capital" as having three dimensions: Economic, Social, and Cultural. In other words, there are three main kinds of capital--financial capital (i.e., wealth or property), social capital (connections between people) and cultural capital (knowledge and information, or "meaning"). A truly successful enterprise, it seems to me, is one that is able to both invest and generate *all three* types of capital. For example, BP seems to be a one-dimensional company that pursues financial capital at the expense of the other two (i.e., its "social capital"--the company's connections to people like consumers and workers--and its "cultural capital", the meaning of the enterprise and what it values and stands for). A company like Apple, on the other hand, seems to be a bit more three-dimensional (e.g., they like to be "insanely cool", not just insanely rich). And how is BP doing right now?(CEO Tony Howard says he wants his life back) How is Apple doing? (Its stock recently passed Microsoft's if I am not mistaken) And if I can extend the metaphor, I might say that capitalism's first stage (roughly 1492 to 1929) was one-dimensional, when nations and firms pursued financial wealth ruthlessly and exploitatively (while destroying social relationships and meaning). Capitalism's second stage (roughly 1930-2001) was two-dimensional, when the creation of the Welfare state made social connections (i.e., firms' relationships to their workers and their customers in mass markets) more central to capitalism (but which also meant a disposable consumer culture in the developed world that depended on massive poverty, "cultural imperialism", and environmental destruction in the developing or undeveloped world). So maybe now we are entering the era of three dimensional capitalism, when firms must also care about the meaning, for all of global humanity, of what they do; When customers also care about the meaning and sustainability of what they consume; and when workers can and do expect that their work (and their compensation) will be meaningful and sustainable.

This, anyway, is one answer I can give to my students who worry that I am simply "sending them back to the fields". Harvesting fruit is certainly drudgery when it is done for one-dimensional reasons by one-dimensional workers working for one-dimensional companies. But what if harvesting olives does three things--generates money (economic capital), stimulates robust new social connections and relationships for workers and consumers (social capital), and leads to new knowledge and meanings (cultural capital), such as Linda/Olivehurst's "rebranding" from a "corridor of shit" to a center of high-quality, hand-picked olives? Then maybe the Grapes of Wrath can be transformed into the Olives of Destiny! Or something... Gotta go vote.

Friday, June 4, 2010

The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Nonprofits

So The Eating Well did not open to the public this week as I had announced it would. Various reasons for that, but this is not the first, and will certainly not be the last time that the cafe's plans have changed. Guess that's how things go in the world of small, nonprofit, experimental social enterprises (or any enterprise?). But The Eating Well did continue its training program this week, and a subcommittee of the Harmony Health FRC Board of Directors had lunch there yesterday. That's my "Raging Bull" panini in the pic above, with Southwestern Salad and fresh fruit. Delicious! I would say that the cafe will open next week, but maybe its better if I don't (but it should!).

This pic, which I posted previously, shows an olive tree in the orchard that has regenerated itself. This is just one of the many amazing things that olive trees can do. But while olive trees may be self-regenerating, olive orchards are not. That's why Ramon has been out there this week irrigating the trees and weeding the ground around them. To become truly productive, Ramon says we will need eventually to prune the orchard pretty heavily, but for now, we (he) will focus on giving the trees the proper irrigation they've been deprived of for so long. Because olive trees are "alternate bearing" (i.e., they tend to produce fruit every other year), and because this year's looks to be a big crop, Ramon figures we can prune aggressively next year, to prepare for an even better harvest the following season. Ramon says he has never been the lead of an olive operation before--i.e., the one making executive decisions like when to prune, when to fertilize, when to harvest, etc.--so he, too, is excited about this adventure.

"Drove my Chevy to the levee and the levee was dry...

The Sacramento Bee reports today that Yuba County's $405 million levee improvement project has received notice from FEMA that the levees meet the 100-year flood safety threshold. This is a major milestone, and should be a big step toward revitalization of the county. These levees should be especially beneficial to the communities of Linda and Olivehurst, which is where many of the clients of Harmony Health FRC and the students of Yuba College, live. The article reports that these are not just big levees, but smart ones. Sounds a little funny, but in fact, "setback levees"--of which this project now has the largest in California--actually are smarter than other levees because they are set back from the river, letting it take a wider and more natural course, and also providing wildlife habitat. So the launch of Harmony Health FRC's social enterprises, The Eating Well and the olive venture (we'll need a name for it, eventually), coincides with Yuba County's first step into a flood-safe era. Seems like another positive portent to me!

"Them good 'ol boys was drinkin'...imported adulterated olive oil?!

This is a jar of olives from my refrigerator. Don't know if you can see the fine print, but these garlic stuffed olives are marketed as a local product from Stephens Farmhouse in Yuba City. Indeed, I bought them in a special "Local Produce" section of an independent grocery store in Marysville. But while I can't prove it, I strongly suspect that these olives were actually grown in Spain, or possibly Italy, not in California, and definitely not in the Yuba-Sutter area. The label on the jar says the olives were "especially made" for Stephens Farmhouse, but where and by whom is not discussed... One of the most surprising things I've learned about the olive industry so far is that, although California produces virtually all the olive oil and table olives made in the U.S., the U.S. accounts for a very small share of the world olive market. The vast majority olive oil consumed in California is not produced in California. And if The New Yorker is to be believed, much of the "Extra Virgin Olive Oil" that we import has labels that may be about as truthful as the one in the pic above. So why aren't more people in the U.S. consuming actual olives and actual olive oil from California (or just *actual* olive oil)? There are various and complicated reasons for this, including the fact that most European olive and olive oil producers are heavily subsidized by their governments, and the fact that many Americans still attach mystique to terms like "imported" and "real Italian". But then, many Americans think The Olive Garden is a great place to eat, so I guess The Eating Well and the olive venture (and the local food movement in general) really have our work laid out for us...

Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Prius and the Olive Tree (with no apologies to Thomas L. Friedman)

This pic shows a dead olive tree in the orchard. Olive trees can live more than a thousand years, but this one didn't.

I spoke to Lewis Johnson of Butte View Olive Ranch, and told him we were going to operate a nonprofit olive oil company, and he quipped, "That's what we're all doing these days". Hopefully it was just a quip, and in any case, Lewis says he probably can process our olives for little to no cost...

I've been learning a lot about olives and the olive industry over the last several days. In my last post I said Ascolano olives are great for curing, but having conferred with Maurice Penna of Penna Gourmet Olives, it seems that the Ascolanos bruise very easily, making it difficult to produce an aesthetically pleasing final product. And, having conferred with several other olive professionals in the area, it appears that Ascolanos make an amazing and premium grade olive oil, and one producer even offered, prospectively, to buy our crop. So it looks like olive oil is back on the table, and table olives, off of it.

The pictures in my last post were taken on my cell phone, but they show that the grove is in decent shape (for having been mostly neglected for several decades), and that it had been mowed recently. The mowing is thanks to Ramon, the orchard manager and second-generation olive tree expert who is helping Harmony Health FRC with this olive (ad)venture. I'm a little worried, because Ramon says he saw and/or killed 4 rattlesnakes while mowing the orchard. Guess we'll have to be very detail-oriented when putting together our release form and instruction guide for the volunteer harvesters!

What you can't see in the pictures is the explosion of flowers on the olive trees, which is a phenomenon noted throughout the Nor Cal olive industry this season. It could be good--lots of flowers can mean lots of olives. But that can be bad, too, since too many olives on the tree actually reduces oil yields. Also, blossoms can be vulnerable to the crazy weather we've been having lately. But most experts see the bloom as a good sign that 2010 will be a great year for the olive harvest. 2010 is also the year that the Guv named February California Olive Month, and 2010 is the year Harmony Health FRC is starting its olive venture, so all these seem like positive portents!

As I was walking through the orchard the other day taking pictures and getting to know the trees, I looked out at the view to the North and I saw what looked like lots of ponds and small lakes, but they were of a very deep azure hue. They did not appear to be rice fields. I thought they might have something to do with "The Yuba Goldfields", but I had never seen The Goldfields, and I didn't know about the pools of water in them. So I've done a bit of research, and now I know that yes, those pools were formed by dredging and gravel mining in the Goldfields, and the deep blue color is because the water bubbles up through the gravel and is highly filtered. But what ARE the Yuba Goldfields? Why are they historically important? Why are they environmentally significant?

This turns out to be a very long and complicated but fascinating story about hydraulic mining in the Sierra Foothills during The Gold Rush, battles between farmers and miners over "slickens" caused by the hydraulic mining, dredge mining that occurred in the slickens after hydraulic mining was outlawed, and current battles between gravel ("aggregate") mining companies, environmentalists, and outdoors enthusiasts. Ironically, this long story takes me full circle back to my last project with Harmony Health FRC--"River Stories". In that project, students from Yuba College and teens from HHFRC's "R Spot" youth group conducted oral histories and interviews to understand the history of flooding in Marysville, and how this history affects the current economy of the area. As it turns out, the flooding, too, is related to the hydraulic mining. Our olive orchard basically sits on land that was devastated by hydraulic mining practices on the upper Yuba River. While the River Stories project focused on understanding the economic distress of the area, the olive enterprise has the potential to contribute to economic revival in the community--full circle.

And maybe this olive orchard, this gift from a major corporation to its wider community, represents one of the beginning steps in restoring the whole Goldfields area (all 10,000 acres), and the Yuba River that runs through it, as a community asset. It seems obvious to me that the long-term health of the Yuba-Sutter region is better served by things like nature preserves and olive orchards than by private gravel mining operations. Not sure what the status is of the movement/effort to restore the Goldfields, but it is fascinating to think about the larger implications and larger historical/political context of this little forgotten olive grove at the base of the Sierra Nevada.

This pic shows a rice field berm adjacent to the olive grove with lots of squirrel holes. The squirrels have been feasting on the unharvested olives. Now they will just have to share. Guess this also explains the presence of rattlers...

This pic shows--what else--my Prius and the olive trees (with rice field on the right)

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Olives: A community asset?

I am establishing this blog in order to document a project I am very excited about: Starting up a nonprofit olive company. Hopefully, this company will eventually generate revenue to support community-based organizations in Yuba County, particularly Harmony Health Family Resource Center in Linda, CA.

Here is some history of the genesis of this project: Several years ago, two colleges in California (Cal Tech and UC Davis) began to realize that unharvested olive trees growing on their campuses posed liability risks due to the slippery roads, walkways, and bikepaths caused by dropped olives. The obvious solution: Harvest the olives and transform the trees from a community liability into a community asset. This was most extensively accomplished at UC Davis, which now has an Olive Center run by Dan Flynn. So, when I became a professor at Yuba College in Marysville, CA, and saw all the old olive trees and orchards in the area, I began to wonder if Yuba College could follow in Cal Tech's and UC Davis' footsteps.

A corner of the Yuba College campus is known as "Olive Hill", because of the very tall and very old Mission Olive trees that stand there. Yuba College is also near, and many of our students come from, Olivehurst, CA, which was named for the canned olive industry that used to thrive in this area. But it was at Beale Air Force Base where I first really got the idea that Yuba County had an untapped resource in the form of hundreds of unharvested olive trees. There are several hundred olive trees growing at Beale AFB, but they are not commercially viable, given their age and size. I asked Beale officials about providing access to the olives to nonprofit groups that could harvest the olives using volunteer labor, and use the proceeds for youth scholarships and/or other community needs (labor costs are the main obstacle to the viability of these orchards). Although Beale officials were quite enthusiastic about the idea, the land on which the base sits is not owned by the Air Force, but by the Federal government. The USAF is not authorized to simply give away agricultural products growing on federal land. So while the officials were in favor of the idea, enlisted staff members told me it would take "at least three inches of paperwork" to get all the approvals and waivers I would need to gain access to the olives. It would have required lots of legwork and pestering of already overworked/underpaid military personnel just to get the access to the trees, and there was no guarantee that these olives would be suitable for making olive oil, which was the goal. So I began to look for other "feral" olive orchards on private land.

For several months I eyed on orchard adjacent to Beale AFB. I wasn't positive they were olives (they were about 100 yards from the road, and I am a novice), but I kept wondering. Thanks to a student's key tip, and through some Internet sleuthing and Googling, I was able to determine that the orchard was, in fact, olives, and that the land belonged to a large construction firm in the Sacramento Valley (I am not at liberty to name the firm yet).

One slow Friday afternoon, I called the construction firm's facility located near the olive orchard, and the manager answered. He said I was lucky to catch him since the facility has been closed for the recession, and is not slated to open again any time soon. When I explained my purpose for calling, he said, "This is your lucky day, because not only were you lucky to catch me here today, but I was just talking with our agriculture manager about what to do with those olives. Why don't you come in on Monday, and we'll talk?"

So I came in on Monday, and we talked, along with the agriculture manager, and within an hour, they literally handed me the key to the orchard. They are very interested in the idea of using the olives to benefit the community, and in planting new olive trees that can also be used for this purpose. Now there are four acres of Ascolano olive trees, and there are 20 total acres of land that we are talking about planting.

So we are establishing a partnership between the construction firm, Yuba College, and Harmony Health Family Resource Center, a nonprofit community-based organization on whose Board of Directors I sit. We cemented this partnership at The Eating Well, a new nonprofit cafe that is also being operated by Harmony Health Family Resource Center (it opens to the public next week, on June 1st). The partnership still needs to be approved, which is why I can't name the construction company yet, but essentially it is a "done deal".

The goal, then, is to organize two volunteer community harvests in the fall, one harvest of green olives for curing, and another, later harvest of darker olives for milling into 0live oil. However, because Ascolano olives are wonderful for curing, and do not yield high volumes of oil, we may decide only to cure and bottle the olives, and not make oil with them. I will be recruiting student, staff, and faculty volunteers from Yuba College, and Harmony Health Family Resource Center will be recruiting from its client and volunteer bases. After processing the olives (into cured, "table olives" and/or extra virgin olive oil), the goal is to vend the products at farmers markets (again "employing" students and volunteers) and other outlets, and donate the proceeds to Harmony Health Family Resource Center and possibly other local nonprofits that we partner with.

In short, this olive venture will be an example of a "social enterprise", a business that earns income in order to sustain a larger nonprofit organization and its mission. Because Harmony Health Family Resource Center's mission is to promote health and well-being in Yuba County, and because locally-grown olives are an excellent (and environmentally-friendly) source of nutrition, this venture truly has the potential to advance our "triple bottom line": That is, these olive products will 1. Advance the mission of Harmony Health FRC (and Yuba College); 2. Help create community change by engaging students, landowners, and others in cooperative community agriculture; 3. Help generate revenue to sustain the other programs offered by Harmony Health FRC (i.e., home visitation, drug abuse support network, after-school youth group, parenting classes, etc.).

I love olives. And I love Yuba County (hence the name of the blog, "Olive Yuba", get it?) And olives symbolize peace, which is something all of us could use more of these days. So I am really excited about this new project. Please visit this space in the future to find out how it is going.

Marc Flacks