Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Community Olive Harvest, 2011

Saturday Morning Update: The Community Olive Harvest is on. The weather should be perfect. See you at 9am at Harmony Health, or after 10am in Oroville. Please read the information below if you haven't yet.

Information for Olive Harvest Volunteers

What: A day of picking olives in the beautiful and historic Berkeley Olive Grove in Oroville. Our goal is to harvest 1 ton of olives that will be milled into extra virgin olive oil that will be sold to benefit Harmony Health Family Resource Center.

Where: Berkeley Olive Grove, near Oroville. Driving directions from Marysville are provided below, but if possible, please plan to meet at Harmony Health Family Resource Center on the morning of the event.

When: Saturday, December 3, 2011.
9:00am: Volunteers meet at the Harmony Health Family Resource Center, 1908 North Beale Rd All volunteers must fill out waivers and medical emergency forms. Volunteers are responsible for their own transportation, but carpooling is encouraged.

If you need to come to the harvest event later, please follow the directions below. If you get lost, or can't find us in the grove, please call Marc Flacks' cell phone: 562-899-0464

10:00am: Olive picking begins. If you are coming to Oroville on your own, please plan to arrive at 10:00am or later. We will be harvesting until about 4pm. So please plan to arrive no later than 3pm. All Volunteers are asked to contribute at least one hour of picking.  

4pm: Olive picking concludes. Olives transported to Palermo for milling.

Directions (from Marysville) : Take Hwy 70 North to Oroville. Go past the city of Oroville and stay on HWY 70 North toward Quincy.

Exit HWY 70 at Table Mountain Rd.

Make a right off the Table Mountain Rd exit,  and follow Table Mountain Rd. past Coal Canyon Rd, until you see a GATE on your left that will be marked with event signs and balloons.

Make a left through the gate, and follow the dirt road through the orchard until you get to another event sign on your right hand side.

Make a right at the sign, and follow the dirt road to the parking/harvesting area.

Please call Marc Flacks' cell phone 562-899-0464 if you get lost or can't find us.

What to bring: Please wear sturdy old shoes and clothes. If you have them, 5 gallon buckets and/or re-usable shopping bags are great for harvesting, but these can also be provided.

What if it rains?: If it is raining on Saturday morning, we will cancel this harvest event, but  Please check this website on Saturday morning for up-to-date information on whether the event is cancelled or not, or for other last minute information.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Come Into My Parlor: Further Entanglement in the World Wide Web of the Olive Tree

One of the many large spiders awaiting their prey in the Teichert grove back in August.

When I went out to the Teichert grove in August to check on the fruit set I was greeted by large spiders--and not much else... Most of the trees were completely bare, and the trees that were fruited were sparsely so. The same seemed to be true out at Beale AFB when I took a trip out there a few days later. Still, Chuck Carroll, a Natural Resources Manager at the Base, and I have continued working to get permission to harvest there. Growers around the whole state, though, are reporting a vastly reduced crop this year, and the causes--weather patterns and the alternate bearing tendencies of the olive tree--would seem to fall on feral olive groves like Teichert's and the Base's especially hard. That's because dry farming, hand harvesting, and insufficient pruning all, I believe, tend to make the alternate bearing effect more pronounced.

So I was extremely gratified to have been contacted in mid-October by Olivia and Darro Grieco, owners of Berkeley Olive Grove, near Oroville. This is the same olive grove that was planted by the Berkeley professors I wrote about a few posts back! They are an amazing couple who have invested their net worth in 400 acres of beautiful, vintage olive trees, including some historic buildings. Unlike the spiders, they warmly welcomed me into their olive adventure--as well as their parlor (which in this case is a trailer abutting the stone house, now in disrepair, built by the Berkeley professors--the stone house pictured on their olive oil label). The Grieco's goals, assets and sensibilities, are neatly aligned with those of 49er Olive Oil: Darro and Olivia want to produce hand-crafted premium quality organic olive oil (indeed, they already do, and have five gold medals this year alone to prove it); they want to preserve their historic grove in perpetuity--Darro calls them "1000 year trees"; and they want to educate the general public about the joys, benefits, and wonders of olive trees, olives, and olive oil. Meanwhile, 49er Olive Oil needs access to trees that are capable of producing at least a ton or so of olives (which would be double our production last year), but not capable of producing a commercially valuable crop (because our model relies on working trees that commercial interests prefer to ignore). Darro and Olivia still have hundreds of acres of un-refurbished trees, so we've agreed to partner, on the theory that I, through my connection and work with Harmony Health Family Resource Center and Yuba College, can help them achieve their goals, and that their olive trees can help 49er Olive Oil and Harmony Health FRC achieve ours. Of course, while I am the main proponent of this theory, I am also among its foremost skeptics... Yet, since the Berkeley Olive Grove was originally established by college professors with little expertise or experience in agriculture, much less olives, it may make sense that someone like me would be involved in helping bring the grove into its next century of successful operation. At least that is what I have led Darro and Olivia to believe...

In any event, the Griecos, like me, are dreamers, and at this point we are dreaming big: We are developing a shared vision where Berkeley Olive Grove could become more than a boutique olive oil operation, and evolve into an "agritourism" destination, where the general public can learn about olives and olive oil, participate in olive processing and oil production, and acquire a range of olive-related products and services. The Sacramento region has other hugely popular agritourism destinations, like Apple Hill and Bishop's Pumpkin Farm, so it seems quite plausible that an olive-themed park, where folks can experience olive picking, olive milling, olive oil tasting, olive curing, olive history, and olive treats, as well as ancillary attractions like pony rides, a store/cafe, and possibly a pumpkin patch and/or Christmas Tree farm, would be successful as well. It would be great, too, if such a facility adhered to "community entrepreneurship" principles, e.g., by operating as a nonprofit, and giving other nonprofit organizations and educational institutions opportunities to be involved and possibly generate operational revenue. A nonprofit operation could be in a position to receive various kinds of grants, and perhaps even attract underwriting from big players in the California olive oil industry. Yes, these are large, long-term visions, but some fundamental prerequisites appear to be in place--e.g., an exquisite piece of property with acre after acre of beautiful, gnarly, older trees held by progressive, forward-looking landowners; an expanding domestic olive industry that is in  need of educating average consumers if it is to achieve its long term growth goals; a burgeoning movement around local food and agriculture; etc.

This vision got a bit of a test last weekend when I brought my family and a small group of volunteers to harvest Barouni olives for a few hours. My daughters, who had to be dragged kicking and screaming up to Oroville for the day, had a wonderful time, and have been begging to go back. I asked Ally afterward if she thought olive-picking was fun, and she said it is, "The best!!". True, the chance to ride exceptionally sweet horses rescued by Olivia was a huge part of their enjoyment, but they also had fun picking olives, and running around in the shade of the largest trees, and pretending they were in an enchanted forest (a game which actually requires very little imagination in this particular locale). The volunteers also appeared to enjoy themselves, and to appreciate the new knowledge they gained about olives, and one of them, a Yuba College student with large family land holdings in India, reported to me that his father is now very interested in exploring potential olive opportunities in that country. So although we only managed to pick about $27.00 worth of olives, and while this financial bottom line was more than swamped by expenditures on pizza for the harvesters and transportation costs, the day was a success according to our "triple bottom line" that places new knowledge and understanding (i.e., cultural capital) and new social connections and relationships (i.e., social capital) on the "credit" side of the ledger. Financially, the day was more debit than credit, but culturally and socially, it was quite profitable, I would say. In any event, we are planning our next harvest event for December 3, and if we are able to recruit the 20-30 volunteers we hope for, we should be able to harvest enough olives to contribute positively to all three of our bottom lines.

Photo from the Marysville Appeal-Democrat article on Super High Density olive operations in the Yuba-Sutter area.

Meanwhile, the larger California olive world has had lots to be excited about since my last real post. For example:

1. California State Senator Lois Wolk's legislation to establish standards for EVOO was passed and signed by the Governor.

2. Tom Mueller, the investigative journalist who exposed the corruption in the European olive industry in a New Yorker piece a few years ago is about to release his new book on olive oil.

3. California olive oil is getting attention from national media outlets like the Wall St. Journal, and CBS News.

But while things seem to be falling into place for California's effort to produce more of the olive oil that Americans consume, these developments are not necessarily positive for small, hand-crafted operations like Berkeley Olive Grove and 49er Olive Oil. Although it is currently possible to maintain that these smaller operations produce a superior, if more costly product than what is available in most markets, the day is coming when premium California olive oil from producers like Corti and California Olive Ranch will be widely available and priced comparably to European oils, and at that point, it might be hard for the smaller California producers to compete. But that is why Berkeley Olive Grove's future may lie in "3D Capitalism", offering a multidimensional olive experience to consumers and travelers, rather than simply selling olive oil.

Darro and Olivia and I found each other through the Web, and while it is unclear at this point who has ensnared whom in their olive oil dreams, those of us caught in the silk threads of olive obsession are willing victims, and the key for all of California's olive industry, it seems to me, is to lure more Americans into this network of deliciousness, healthfulness, and conviviality. So please, come out to our harvest event on December 3, and check this space for up-to-the-minute information about it.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Operation Olive Harvest, 2011

Information for Olive Harvest Volunteers

Big news for 49er Olive Oil: We have partnered with Berkeley Olive Grove, and this season our harvest activities will take place there. Our first harvest day is planned for Saturday, November 12th. So, here is all the information for that:

What: A day of picking olives (and possibly some pruning) at Berkeley Olive Grove. We plan to harvest the Barouni olives grown there, and then process these into delicious table olives--later in the season we will harvest Mission and/or Manzanillo olives for milling into olive oil. Proceeds from the sale of these olive products will benefit Harmony Health Family Resource Center. Pizza will be provided to volunteers for lunch, and we will end our day with a chance to enjoy olive oil and other tasty treats.

Where: Berkeley Olive Grove, near Oroville, CA. Volunteers should plan to meet at 9am at the Harmony Health Family Resource Center parking lot, 1908 North Beale Rd., Marysville (one block from Yuba College). If you have to arrive later than 9am, please follow the directions to Berkeley Olive Grove provided below.

When: Saturday, November 12, 2011. Please meet at the Harmony Health Family Resource Center parking lot at 9am, so we can carpool as a group. If you need to come to the harvest event later, please follow the directions below. If you get lost, or can't find us in the grove, please call Marc Flacks' cell phone: 562-899-0464

Directions (from Marysville) : Take Hwy 70 North to Oroville. Go past the city of Oroville and stay on HWY 70 North toward Quincy.

Exit HWY 70 at Table Mountain Rd.

Make a right off the Table Mountain Rd exit, and follow Table Mountain Rd. to Coal Canyon Rd.

Make a left on Coal Canyon Road.

Make your next left on Rocky Rd. Berkeley Olive Grove will be the first house on the left. It is an old stone house, with a grey gate in front. Again, call 562-899-0464 if you get lost or can't find us.

What to bring: Please where sturdy old shoes and clothes. If you have them, we can use pole saws, a long bar chain saw, harvesting poles, ladders, and tarps.

What if it rains?: If it is raining on Saturday morning, we will cancel this harvest event. Please check this website on Saturday morning for up-to-date information on whether the harvest is a "go" or not.

Darro Grieco, owner (with wife Olivia), of Berkeley Olive Grove. Some of their 400 acres of vintage olive trees are visible in the distance.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Busted Retirement Plans and Intact Perineums (aka, The Old and the New)

Olive Hill at Yuba College, which includes a stand of very tall, old Mission olive trees

"The olives prospered, and so did the professors"
                   --Judith M. Taylor, The Olive in California: History of an Immigrant Tree

In my last post I looked at the question of whether California gold miners consumed "liquid gold", and if so, whether there was actually "49er olive oil" (i.e., olive oil produced and consumed by California gold miners) during the time of the Gold Rush. I am interested in tracing the history of California olive oil because, as I've mentioned in other previous posts, I am trying to build a "learning community" at Yuba College around olives and olive oil. So I am trying to learn about, and then hopefully share with my colleagues, all the ways that olives can connect with the courses we teach in higher education (e.g., history, economics, humanities/philosophy, literature, biology, agriculture, etc.). My hope is that by building a learning community around olives, students will have a rich and delectable opportunity to see how the knowledge they are gaining in their different classes can be integrated and synthesized by applying it to a common subject. So my first task is to get other faculty interested in teaming up to create an olive community, and unfortunately I am facing some difficulty with that. While some of my colleagues are enthusiastically interested, many others are reluctant to get on board, one, because they feel they don't know (or care) much about olives, and two, because they are--quite understandably--not too keen to alter their course structure and/or course content in order to join the community.

So I was intrigued to discover during my research that the modern olive industry in California was midwifed in part by a group of professors from UC Berkeley and the University of Nevada, none of whom had any expertise in agriculture (much less olives). At the time of WWI, Judith M. Taylor informs us, these professors received no retirement benefits from their institutions, so they decided to invest in olive orchards as a source of retirement income. The group designated English instructor Herbert W. Hill to do research and report back, and, based on his work, they chose Coal Canyon, near Oroville (just up the road from Yuba College), as the site for their investment:
The professors planted the trees and sat back to await results. During the summers, they camped in the olive orchards. Later, some of them built small retirement cottages on their property. The olives prospered, and so did the professors. By 1922, they were in full swing. It was a good investment. The olive trees continue to bear fruit, and some of their families are still involved in the olive trade [p. 64]. 

I do not know who planted the olive grove that used to occupy the land on which Yuba College now sits, but I would like to believe that if I could get a group of faculty to have a picnic under the trees on Olive Hill (see pic above), they would catch the olive bug too, and would want to be part of an olive-oriented intellectual collaboration. I spent some time at that spot the other day, and it was truly placid, beautiful, and restorative. The trees were whispering peaceful thoughts, but there was no one there--there is almost never anyone there on Olive Hill--to hear them.

Olive trees and welcoming sign at entrance to Yuba College

Memorial for Beau Armstrong, who crashed his car into an olive tree at Yuba College in 2007

On the other side of campus, though, is a stand of olive trees that shelter a different sort of message of peace (see top pic above). This is a much less pleasant spot than Olive Hill, it being the entrance to the main campus parking lot, where these trees breathe exhaust fumes all day. A car even crashed into one of the trees a few years ago, and there is still a memorial marker there for Beau Armstrong, the deceased driver (who was not a student or employee of Yuba College). But taken together, the majestic Mission trees on Olive Hill and the squat trees by the West Parking Lot have a ghostly presence on the Yuba College campus--remnants of a time when the land and the trees were used by other people for other reasons.

Spring Bloom, 2011 in the Teichert olive grove in Linda

But if olive trees help one to rest in peace, the flowers and fruit of the olive tree are harbingers of new life and renewed vitality. Along these lines, I am happy to report that 49er Olive Oil was used by Rachel Farrell to help deliver a healthy, 9 lb baby boy into the world last week. Rachel was very excited to relate that the healthy-sized baby was delivered "with an intact perineum!!", and Rachel credits a massage with the olive oil for this. While it seems entirely appropriate that Extra Virgin would have a place in women's reproductive health, I am not sure this is our most appetizing marketing angle. Still, congratulations to baby, mommy, and midwife Rachel!

Olive flower buds (and honey bees), mid-May, 2011

There is also much new life and growth in the Teichert (i.e., "our") olive grove right now. Aside from the pretty purple wildflowers all over the place, the trees themselves--well, some of them--are bling-ing with the tiny yellow pearls that will become flowers and then, hopefully, olives. I'd been seeing random trees around Yuba County, including several on the Yuba College campus, that looked like they'd been dusted in mustard powder they were so covered in buds, so I drove out to the  grove to see how things looked. Some of the trees were practically glittering yellow, but many have almost no buds at all. 

One of the profusely budding trees in the Teichert grove

The tree on the left has many budding branches; the one on the right has almost none.
I am not exactly sure of the explanation for disparities in "inflorescence" (budding and flowering) of the trees. Having conferred with Mr. Baggett (a farmer who leases land from Teichert and who is now helping us manage the grove) and others, it seems there could be a number of possibilities, from different tree varieties (it's possible that the trees in the Teichert grove include a mix of cultivars aside from Manzanillo), to differences in irrigation (some trees are in position to be able to tap into moisture from neighboring rice fields), to differences in pollination (note the bees in the top photo above), to unequal exposure to sunlight (among other possible explanations). But, in consultation with Joe Muller from Teichert, and Mr. Baggett, we have decided that the orchard management plan for now is to fertilize the trees in order to try to increase fruit set, and therefore yield, when harvest time comes in the fall. So Baggett's crew was out there last week, too, "disc-ing" the rows (using a disc mower to break up the top soil so that when fertilizer is spread, it will have a better chance of reaching the roots of the trees). The next step will be to flood irrigate the grove, which entails building some berms (i.e., long dirt mounds) around the the grove to hold the water in place as it seeps into the ground, dissolving the fertilizer granules, bringing the nutrients down to the roots. Ramon did not build berms lost season, so when he flooded the uneven ground of the grove, most of the water ran right off, or pooled in certain low spots. These methods--conventional fertilizer and flood irrigation--are "old school", but they are effective under the circumstances. We would like to transition to more earth-friendly, "new school" methods (e.g., spreading manure rather than commercial fertilizer; planting legume cover crops to provide nitrogen; drip irrigation, etc.) but Joe argues that "organic" can be a dubious term, and that these long-neglected trees need nutrients more immediately than manure and cover crops can provide them. I'm not sure we'll be able to call our grove "feral" and our oil "Wild Manzanillo" after these interventions, but such are the compromises inherent in operating a social business. 

One of the Baggett family farmers "disc-ing" the rows of the olive grove in preparation to fertilize and irrigate

The old and new schools of the California olive industry were commingled at the UC Davis Olive Center's symposium on Medium High Density olive production, a small part of which I was able to attend last month. The "California Ripe" table olive industry (old school) and the revived California olive oil industry (new school) usually occupy different universes. The UC Davis symposium, I was told by attendees, was one of the first times the two poles of the industry came together to compare notes. One vendor I spoke to laughed that you could tell the table olive guys from the olive oil folks by how they looked--table olive guys (and they were exclusively guys) looked like farmers, and came to the UC Davis venue in their work clothes and boots, while the olive oil folks looked like they'd come for a wine tasting. And in the panel discussions, you could hear that the olive oil producers were more likely to focus and rely on the latest scientific data and techniques (presented with Powerpoint, of course), whereas the table olive growers were more apt to reference their years of personal experience and intimate knowledge of what olive trees need and want. The folk/science dichotomy, though, is a bit simplistic, since the table olive guys don't really eschew scientific techniques; they just seem to prefer ammonia-based fertilizers and flooding of their fields to organic fertilizers and drip irrigation. The table olive industry, being older and more established than today's olive oil industry, may just be more committed to older technologies. But it is interesting and ironic to learn from this symposium that, while Super High Density production had seemed to be the wave of the future, Medium Density orchards, which have long been the standard in table olive production, may now be the cutting edge for California Olive Oil (due to emerging drawbacks of SHD as well as newly developed techniques for mechanical harvesting of medium density rows).

Faculty processional at Yuba College Commencement, 2011 (an old tradition held in a brand new stadium, built courtesy of Yuba County bond funds)

Old and new were also commingled during Commencement festivities at Yuba College this week (where, BTW, student volunteers sold almost two cases of 49er Olive Oil). While the Chancellor is retiring (and the District just announced the selection of a new one) and many faculty had planned to retire this year as well, a snafu in HR means that a sweet retirement package offer has had to be rescinded, and therefore several professors who thought they were retiring, are in fact staying. So, if my idea of having a picnic under the trees on Olive Hill does not pan out,  maybe my new angle for recruiting faculty to the olive learning community should be, "Olives: Helping California Professors Achieve Their Retirement Dreams since WWI".

From right, Yuba College Librarian, Elena Heilman (already recruited to the olive learning community) and  ECE Professor, Maris Wagener, and History Professor Surangi Frazier (both future recruits)

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Authentic 49er Olive Oil?

My daughter, Ally, is a little resentful of my new obsession with olive oil. She calls olive oil my "new girlfriend", and says I should marry it if I love it so much. Ouch! So I am trying to give Ally more attention, while at the same time, hoping to help her see that olive oil really can be fun and cool, and even tasty. So last weekend I took her to the new Three Stages theater at Folsom Lake College to see the Sacramento Ballet's kids' program (including an abridged, "Peter and the Wolf"), and after lunch at a European-style restaurant, we stopped at the Folsom History Museum. Ally really liked all the gold mining displays, and the old toys, and then, lo and behold, we stumbled on this:

In a glass case with a display about miners' eating habits was an olive oil bottle and a can from the Orsi Olive Oil Company. There was not much text to accompany the display, but after chatting with the museum staff, we learned that Orsi is a now defunct olive oil company that operated out of Roseville (next door to Lincoln, where we live) in the early 20th Century. So while Orsi does not really qualify as authentic 49er olive oil (it was started in 1932), there was still plenty of gold mining in the foothills in the early 20th century, and if gold miners were using olive oil, it could easily have been Orsi Olive Oil. I have not yet found any information about whether much olive oil was produced (or even consumed) in California during the Gold Rush itself, but in The Olive in California: History of an Immigrant Tree, Judith M. Taylor tells us that, while it was Spanish missionaries who first made olive oil from olives grown in California, largely for sacramental purposes, Italian immigrants, who began coming to the state during the Gold Rush, played a big part in creating an olive oil market and an olive oil industry here. According to Taylor:

"Once they came to their senses and recovered from the mining madness, the Italian immigrants settled down and began to do the things they understood much better. With the critical mass of Italians and other Mediterranean peoples, the new market was born. Here were large numbers of people who knew and wanted olives and olive oil." [p. 39] 

The Orsi family seems to have immigrated during this period. Taylor does not mention Orsi olive oil nor their factory in Roseville, but she does include a picture of a bottle of Rancho Chico Olive Oil, which also may have been consumed by California gold miners (though much earlier than Orsi's). While Italian immigrants may have constituted the bulk of the early market for olive products in California, General John Bidwell, founder of what became Chico, California, was one of the first purveyors of California olive oil. In fact, since Bidwell's first job after emigrating to state as a pioneer was as a bookkeeper to John Sutter--the man whose lumber mill was the site of the discovery of gold in California--I think it is safe to say that the "original" and authentic 49er olive oil was Rancho Chico Pure Olive Oil produced by John Bidwell:

But while neither Rancho Chico nor Orsi olive oil are still in production, the building that housed the Orsi Olive Oil Company still stands in what is now Citrus Heights (near Roseville). Today the building is devoted to a couple of antique shops where one may or may not be able to acquire old Orsi Olive Oil tins. I went there today, and was able to purchase two cans from one of the shops, but the owner of the other shop said that his two tins were provided by Ms. April Orsi herself (who still comes back to the old building every April to visit), and he did not want to part with them. Here are some photos relative to my reconnaissance trip to the Orsi Olive Oil building:

Old photo of the Orsi Olive Oil Company plant (note the shadow of the telephone pole)
How the Orsi Olive Oil Company plant looks today (note that the building's in the shadow of a cell phone tower now)

How the Orsi Olive Oil Company plant looks today--from the back
The folks at Olive Factory Antiques gave me a great deal on these Orsi Olive Oil cans
Taylor tells us that, although the early California olive oil industry began to gain a foothold at first, it was all but put out of business, ironically, by "considerably lower prices charged for imported oil  made possible by adulteration with cheap substitutes" (p. 43). And though we like to think of our current economy as uniquely "global", Taylor informs us that, back then, European olive oil merchants would import cheap cottonseed oil from the United States, then ship it back to California "masquerading as olive oil." This is surely why each side of the Orsi can contains blurbs (one side in Italian, one side in English) stating:

"This superfine olive oil is made from selected ripe California olives. Packed under the most sanitary conditions, it is guaranteed absolutely pure under any chemical analysis. It is unexcelled [sic] for medicinal, seasoning and all cooking purposes."

Side of Orsi Olive Oil can (English)
Side of Orsi Olive Oil can (Italian)

But, as ever, the more things change, the more they stay the same. This week UC Davis released another report claiming that a majority of imported olive oils  fail to meet the highest standards of both chemical and sensory analysis, and, in response, the North American Olive Oil Association (who represent mainly importers of European olive oil)  released a statement saying the study  was "nothing more than a crass marketing ploy by  California olive oil producers". I do not know if that statement was also released in Italiano...

Friday, April 1, 2011

It's Not About the Olives

Becky, volunteer cook/server at The Eating Well Cafe, will gladly sell you one of the hundreds of bottles of 49er Olive Oil that she hand labeled

49er Olive Oil is a hit! I've actually had to turn some customers away, because while they want whole cases of oil, I am trying to keep bottles stocked at The Eating Well  for cross-marketing purposes: i.e., folks can come to The Eating Well for the oil, but hopefully stay for a meal, enjoy themselves, and come back regularly! So if you want some 49er oil, please go to The Eating Well Cafe, 1908 N. Beale Rd (530-742-5049).

For out-of-town customers, I am offering this deal: If you donate $10 or more to Harmony Health Family Resource Center, I will personally ship you a bottle of 49er Olive Oil. (Shipping costs are about $5 for a bottle, and the oil is $5/bottle, so that is why I am asking for at least a $10 donation). Please contact me directly if interested (mflacks@yccd.edu).

49er Olive Oil is proving especially popular for corporate gift-giving purposes. Ed Davis, Dean of the Social Sciences/Humanities/Business/Vocational Ed Division picked up a case in order to create gift baskets for his associates in the Yuba community theater community. Joe Muller and Alberto Ramirez, the guys from Teichert who have worked with me since May of last year to make 49er Olive Oil possible, have purchased three cases so far and have distributed bottles to the VIPs at Teichert Corporation.  The folks at Teichert especially love the artwork on the label, and said they are going to enlarge the label image into a poster to hang at their office. I myself have gifted bottles to Dean Ed Davis, to the President of the Academic Senate of Yuba College, Tim May, and to the Al Alt, Vice Chancellor of the Yuba Community College District,  and I will be giving a bottle to each of the five Trustees of YCCD and one to the outgoing Chancellor, Nikki Harrington, next week at the Board Meeting where I will be awarded tenure. Olive oil, as it turns out, is great for "greasing the wheels"...

Paul Noth cartoon from The New Yorker, 3/21/11

And wheels need to be greased because, ironically, while starting up 49er Olive Oil and producing 24 cases of oil within less then a year of operation has been challenging, the real challenges--"scaling up" our production and becoming a self-sustaining social business with significant returns to a "triple bottom line"--are still ahead. Much like in the real corporate world, our startup now needs to contemplate "going public", so to speak,  but given our three-dimensional, "triple bottom line" model, we not only need to attract more financial capital from traditional investors and financiers, but also "investors" of other forms of capital/equity (e.g., time, expertise, sweat, reputation, equipment, etc.). So while I feel a little, well, oily, for buttering up higher ups with our olive oil--olive oil proving here once again to be a great butter substitute!--it is a necessary step, I think, in order to get "buy in" from a range of other folks (i.e., students, community members, the local agriculture community, faculty, etc.). And it is this last group--faculty--who may be the hardest to win over--as I am finding out, it's gonna take more then tasty healthy liquid lipids to herd these cats!

There's been a bit of a revolution in the world of California Olive Oil: At the annual meeting of the California Olive Oil Council in Monterey a few weeks ago, the membership ousted some of the longstanding Board members, and elected several new ones, evidently with the goal of taking the California olive oil industry  to the "next level". According to one member who was at the meeting, the previous Board reflected the California Olive Oil industry of the past few decades--i.e., small-scale, "hobby" production of olive oil--whereas the new one is serious about gaining global market share for California Olive Oil, which entails other goals, like establishing strict, enforceable standards for oil quality and freshness; gaining influence over policymakers in Washington and Sacramento; and aggressively educating the public about the virtues of olive oil in general, and fresh, locally produced olive oil, in particular. The new Board includes folks like Michael Tuohy, Executive Chef of The Grange restaurant in Sacramento, and Deborah Rogers, founder of The Olive Press, and recipient of The Olive Oil Times' 2011 Producer of the Year award.

Does California have a realistic chance of competing against the big players in the international olive oil industry? Positive indicators include the fact that this year, California produced more olive oil than France for the first time (Though France's olive industry seems to have been in decline since a major frost in the 1980s), and, while the state is still far behind major producers like Italy and Spain, as I've noted previously, government subsidies for olive oil in those countries may not be sustainable much longer. Also, UC Davis is pursuing various lines of research that could benefit the industry, such as "medium density" orchards as a superior alternative to "super high density" ones, and mechanized harvesting of table olive crops, like Manzanillo (this is actually a potential threat, by the way, to the 49er Olive Oil model, since volunteer harvesters might not be more cost effective than mechanical ones...).

Personally, I applaud the effort to grow the California olive oil and table olive industries, because I think it is better, on several levels (environmental, economic, dietary, social, cultural, psychological) for Californians to produce and even export our own olive products rather than to import them. However, I would not want to see the state's olive industry become dominated by a few large firms with a traditional agribusiness model. To me, a vibrant California olive industry would be one that had many different small and medium-sized operations, with many different olive varieties in production, and multiple product lines (oils, table olives, tapenades, cosmetics, etc). Instead of chasing global market share, I'd like to see the industry pursue a goal of capturing domestic market share (and not just of the olive oil market, but those for other products as well) That said, the large corporate olive oil companies that are emerging in California at least seem a little more "three-dimensional" than firms one sees in many other industries, and one cannot deny the excellent quality of oil coming from outfits like California Olive Ranch and Corto Olive.

Still, it increasingly seems to me that one of the best ways out of the various crises we face (economic, environmental, sociological) is for Californians and Americans in general to renew an entrepreneurial spirit that combines the best of our conservative and progressive traditions: i.e., self-reliance; personal responsibility; a DIY, or do-it-yourself, "can-do", orientation; respect for the land and local history and traditions; local control and self-determination; the dignity of hard, productive work; cooperation in the pursuit of competition; etc. While today the country appears more divided and polarized than ever, I actually perceive a lot of common ground in seemingly disparate movements like the Tea Party, the Slow/Local Food movement, the Alternative Energy movement, the Entrepreneurship movement, and others.

49er Olive Oil, in any case, seems to be quite popular with folks from *all* of these strands of American life, from my conservative Christian Republican friends, to my environmentally radical students, to my urbane academic colleagues, to my Red Diaper Baby parents. And in general, there seems to be a renewed convergence around the idea that "smaller is better"--smaller government, smaller businesses, smaller agriculture, smaller marketplaces, smaller carbon footprints, smaller classrooms, etc. When our government bureaucracies and businesses and schools and workplaces get too large, we humans feel too small, and this seems to be the common feeling underlying much of the activism in America today--"too big to fail" just won't cut it anymore. Yesterday was Cesar Chavez' birthday, and he always said that his struggle wasn't about grapes or lettuce, but about the dignity of people. If America is about anything anymore--or indeed, if it ever was--it would seem to boil down to "the dignity of people", and entrepreneurship (traditional-, social-, and community-) is, at bottom, about dignity too.

An "olive" Si Se Puede (Yes we can) hat from the Cesar Chavez Foundation

Saturday, February 19, 2011

49er Olive Oil

The oil is now bottled, and the label (above) is being printed. So we should have product ready to vend by next weekend!

The Name

Here's some background on the label design: I had originally hoped to have a contest at Yuba College to name the olive venture and to design the logo and label. But since the harvest came rather suddenly and unexpectedly, I decided to make some executive decisions myself this season, with the thought that things can change and evolve in the future. I decided to name the olive venture "49er Olive Oil" because it seems to work on several levels: 1. Yuba College's mascot/team name is The 49ers, which of course reflects the gold mining history of Yuba County; 2. The olives were harvested from Teichert's grove in the Yuba Goldfields, an important site from the days of '49; 3. Olive oil is "liquid gold" and we are in the midst of a new California "gold" rush. 

The Artwork

Plus, it so happens that my (first) cousin (once removed), Mort Kunstler, a very successful commercial artist (remember the movie poster for The Hindenburg, with people jumping out of the burning zeppelin? That was him.), has a great painting called, "The Discovery of Gold at Sutter's Mill", and I thought it would look nice on the label. He agreed, and didn't even mind that our wonderful graphic artist at Yuba College, Teresa Aronson, cropped the image. Thanks, Teresa, for your excellent label design! And thanks, Cousin "Mutz" for the artwork! (The folks at Teichert, by the way, love the label and the painting).

The Flavor 

The part of the label that may require the most explanation is "Wild Manzanillo": Up until the harvest, we (me, Teichert officials, Ramon) had been laboring under the belief that the olives were probably Ascolanos. But when we brought the fruit to Lewis Johnson for milling, he immediately ruled out Ascolanos (wrong shape and size, he said), and opined that they were most likely Manzanillos ("Little Apples" in Spanish). Later, when the oil had settled, the folks at Sutter Buttes Olive Oil--Alka Rita Kumar and her husband, Arek Kazmierczak--tasted it and also felt that it was not Ascolano oil, which has a distinctive flavor. I also sent the oil to UC Davis for "Sensory Evaluation", and they, too, suspect that the variety is most likely Manzanillo. Of course, the "wild" designation is my own attempt at marketing flourish, but it's actually pretty accurate, in that the grove is a feral one, and the flavor of the oil is pungent, bitter, and peppery (these are positive qualities in olive oil, according to experts, but they are not necessarily found in most of the olive oil that American consumers are used to). 

The Quality?

So the oil passed inspection, earning the top grade of "Extra Virgin" (which really means, no defects, like rancidity or mustiness), and a style of "Robust". Woo hoo! We're in (social) business!

Here are some excerpts from the UC Davis report on our oil:

Tasting Protocol
The UC Davis Olive Oil Sensory Panel tasted the 49er Olive Oil sample on February 14, 2011. The panel is comprised of 18 members trained to provide descriptive analysis of olive oil and recognized by the International Olive Oil Council in Spain. All samples were tasted blindly and presented using a random four digit code consisting of numbers and letters. Blue glasses were used to disguise the color of samples. Samples were warmed to approximately 28 degrees Celsius prior to tasting. Panelists used green apples and room temperature water to cleanse their palates between samples. Panelists were also separate by dividers and remained silent during the entire tasting.

Samples were rated using the UC Davis descriptive scorecard. Defects, fruit, green fruit, ripe fruit, bitterness and pungency were all rated using a 10 centimeter unstructured line scale. Scores were measured by panelists with a ruler once they had completed the tasting. Samples were also evaluated using 47 aroma and flavor descriptors, divided into the follow groups:
*Ripe fruit;
* Green fruit;
* Mouthfeel;
*Integrated balance;

Results were tabulated using the median of panelist’s scores. These values are presented to the right in the table and in the spider graph below. Descriptors were rated between zero and 10. Those descriptors rated as zero are not shown.

Grade: Extra Virgin
Style: Robust


Ripe fruit
Green fruit
Total Aroma Intensity
Total flavor intensity
Ripe Olive
Aftertaste/Taste persistence (bitterness)

Below is the "spider graph" which presents the above information in a graphical from. I am not entirely clear on the precise purpose of this way of representing the data;  I thought maybe the lack of symmetry in our "web" would be a flaw, but the staff at UCD Olive Center reassured me that a completely balanced oil would probably be pretty bland. They said our oil was perfectly fine to sell, and that although it is pretty bitter and astringent, these are often considered positive qualities of olive oil (see above). In fact, the bitterness is caused by the polyphenols, or antioxidants, which give olive oil many of its healthful qualities. Anecdotally, I can say that, while I was consuming our oil over the holidays, my entire family--except for me--contracted Strep Throat...

The Future

49er Olive Oil will be available for purchase soon at The Eating Well cafe, in Linda, and at Sutter Buttes Olive Oil, in Sutter. We only have 24 cases, and I am planning to give quite a bit of that away to the volunteers and other supporters. So if you want some, act fast! 

Teichert is quite willing to explore making our Community Olive Harvest an annual (or perhaps biennial event), and in giving Yuba College access to maintain, improve, and harvest the grove. I am meeting with them next week to talk about safety issues and other matters. 

Since I am in charge of the Learning Community project at Yuba College ("Learning Communities" refers to efforts to link different courses together, through common themes, common assignments, and integrated learning experiences), I am planning to develop a "confluence model" learning community for next Fall Semester. A confluence model is when several courses, all taught at the same hour/day of the week, are linked by a common theme, with a series of common experiences over the course of the term. So, I am proposing to link courses via the theme of "Olives", and, depending on which other instructors I am able to recruit, our Learning Community can explore such things as, the sociology of olives, the biology of olives, the chemistry of olive oil, the religious significance of olives and olive oil, the economics of the olive oil industry,  the ceramics/art of olives, olive-themed literature, and even the music of olives. The semester will include guest presentations by olive experts, olive oil tastings, student presentations on what they've learned about olives, and will conclude with either an olive harvest festival (in a harvest year) or an olive food festival (coinciding with the holiday season). We can also recruit student clubs and sports teams to help harvest the olives (I'm envisioning a contest to see which student group can fill the most bins!), and these groups can also share in the revenue generated from 49er Olive Oil. 

So yes, I am dreaming big, but ultimately, I hope 49er Olive Oil will become a collective project managed by the students of Yuba College, rather than my own personal obsession...
The very first unit of commercially bottled 49er Olive Oil, in front of the new(ish) sign for The Eating Well Cafe