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.

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