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)

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