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 (

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

1 comment:

  1. Find good olives is hard! There is so many olive varieties. It's hard to pick the right one