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: