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)