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