Wednesday, December 12, 2012

3rd Annual Community Olive Harvest

Information for Olive Harvest Volunteers

What: An olive harvest to benefit Harmony Health Family Resource Center and other local nonprofit groups.

When: Saturday, December 15, 2012
                  Start Time: 10am
                  End Time:  3pm

Come any time between 10am and 3pm. Please plan to spend at least one or two hours harvesting--or more, if you think you are up for it!

What to Wear and Bring: Olive picking can be messy (and oily), so please wear sturdy old clothes and sturdy shoes or boots. It could be muddy, too. You can pick the olives with your bare hands, but if you can bring any harvesting rakes or harvesting poles or other fruit harvesting equipment, we can probably use it! It would be great if you could bring one or more re-usable shopping bags or plastic buckets with handles to use for picking. But there will be plenty of those on hand if you can't bring any. You will need to fill out a volunteer packet when you arrive.

Where: 4249 Hammonton-Smartville Road, on the Teichert Aggregates lot. You cannot enter the main lot, so you will have to find the DIRT ROAD leading to the olive grove. Here is how:

Directions from Yuba College: 

--Take NORTH BEALE ROAD east towards Beale Air Force Base. Before you get to the Base, look for BROPHY ROAD on the LEFT hand side. 

--Take Brophy road to HAMMONTON-SMARTVILLE ROAD. Make a RIGHT on Hammonton-Smartville Road.

--Take Hammonton-Smartville Road a few hundred hards, and look on your LEFT-HAND SIDE for COLORFUL signs marking the GATE. The gate will be open, but the road is not paved, so carefully and slowly drive through the gate. The grove will be on your left side. Look for the SIGNS marking the parking area, which is behind the grove on your left side. 

--If you get lost, call 562-899-0464

Why?: For extra credit of course! Oh, and to perform service to the community, in a fun, peaceful, and possibly even educational way. If you don't know much about the pleasures of olives and olive oil and olive picking, now is your chance to find out!! 

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Freda Ehmann and Community Entrepreneurship

Freda Ehmann, "Mother of the California Olive Industry"
The Ehmann Home, in Oroville, CA
49er Olive Oil participated in the 2nd Annual Olive Festival put on by the Butte County Historical Society

For me, the least interesting part of the whole olive oil (ad)venture is actually trying to sell the stuff. I've never really worked (successfully) in sales, and now I know why--I'm just no good at it. Sales, I suppose, is where the real entrepreneurs get distinguished from the dreamers; where the men get separated from the boys, so to speak. On the other hand, in the world of California olives, it may be that the best entrepreneurs are neither men nor boys, but women.

As it turns out, perhaps the most historically significant olive entrepreneur in California was Freda Ehmann, known today as the "Mother of the California ripe olive industry". Ms. Ehmann was born in Germany, but came to the U.S. as a teenager, and when her husband died, she sold her house in Illinois and followed her son to California, where she got involved with olives.  Interestingly, Ehmann Olive Co., like 49er Olive Oil, got its start in Marysville:

Freda Ehmann's son, Edwin, was a fine china salesman with a Northern California territory, and one of his customers was a jeweler in Marysville named Herman Juch. In the late 1880s, there was a boom in olive grove planting (similar to the current one), and Mr. Juch persuaded Edwin Ehmann to invest with him in the Olive Hill Grove, which was part of an 1800 acre ranch in Yuba County. At that point, Freda Ehmann and her daughter moved from Oakland, to live in a house on the Olive Hill property.

Now, I have mentioned before in this blog that there is a corner of Yuba College known as "Olive Hill", and that on it stand two neat rows of old and very tall Mission olive trees. I have also mentioned that Beale AFB, near the campus, also has some old olive groves. Is it possible that the Olive Hill Grove where Freda Ehmann got her start included trees that are still standing at Yuba College and/or Beale AFB? Even the curator at the Ehmann Home in Oroville could not answer this question, so I am still trying to track down the answer, but this passage from a 1979 Butte County Historical Society document is intriguing, and provides other clues to Ms. Ehmann's entrepreneurial spirit:

"The winter of 1894-95 was a severe winter with exceedingly heavy rainfall. From her home on Olive Hill, topping the first rise as you come out of Marysville on the Loma Rica road, Freda could look over a valley which seemed a single sheet of water. At the same time, in line with a general business depression, olive prices and the value of olive properties fell. Herman Juch was bankrupt, and Edwin lost his entire investment in Olive Hill, including all of Freda's money from the sale of her Illinois home. In 1895 to make some amends, Mr. Juch deeded another 20 acre olive grove in Yuba County to Mrs. Ehmann. At age 56 Freda found herself in a new state, her savings gone, her sole tangible asset a 20 acre olive orchard of dubious value"
                                                --"Freda Ehmann", by Walter Bolles and Gertrude N. Barley, 1979,  Diggin's: Journal of the Butte County Historical Society, V. 23, No. 3

In the mythology surrounding Freda Ehmann, it is often claimed--incorrectly--that she "invented" the process for turning fresh olives into the perfect black pearls we eat on pizzas today. But while the heroes of American entrepreneurship mostly have been men known as "Great Inventors" (e.g., Edison, Ford, Disney, Jobs, Zuckerberg, etc.), some claim that Ehmann's brand of entrepreneurship was distinctly feminine, defined by patience and attention to detail, rather than by bold strokes of novelty or quantity. So while she did not invent cured olives,

"...what she did do was to take a crude recipe and, by endless experiment, improve it until she had achieved a stable product of superior quality. She worked to preserve the natural color of the olive, to retain a high percentage of oil and a delicate flavor, and to insure keeping quality. Where science and chemical exactness had failed, the experience and care of a skillful and conscientious housewife succeeded." (Bolles and Barley, 1979)

While I think it is of dubious value to define "female entrepreneurs" as somehow different from "male entrepreneurs", I do think it is worthwhile to consider that Ms. Ehmann's approach to her olive enterprise was distinct from that of mainstream businessmen of the time, including her son's. Whereas he had hoped to make a fortune by simply investing financial capital in an olive grove, and sitting back and reaping profits, Ms. Ehmann had lost a fortune using this model, and instead, saw that investing various forms of equity--especially her own physical and mental labor--was the key to building a successful olive venture. Of course, the experiences of being a woman in Victorian Era America probably helps explain Ehmann's different orientation, but I would prefer to see her brand of entrepreneurship as a kind of "community entrepreneurship", rather than labeling it as "feminine". I believe it is fair to say that she saw olive production as a collective activity that can help build healthy communities, rather than simply as a money-making proposition. For her, success was defined not simply in terms of how much product she sold, but was measured in other ways as well. For example, she insisted that quality mattered more than quantity; She believed in enacting Christian values in her factory, which, among other things, included special dining rooms for the girls working there, where Ms. Ehmann also lunched, and later, a special dining room for the men; She hired Japanese workers when others discriminated against them, and paid them the same wages as the white workers; She believed in human uplift, and supported the Suffrage and Temperance movements; and she went around the world, yes, to market Ehmann olives, but more than that, to create a community around California olives. Here is Freda in her own words, and, interestingly enough, she is talking about olive oil (which Ehmann Olive Co also produced), in terms that are actually still relevant today:

So although I am not fond of trying to sell 49er Olive Oil, I am happy to report that over a case was sold at the 2nd Annual Olive Festival in Oroville, put on at the Ehmann House by the Butte County Historical Society. Butte County claims Freda as its own, since that is where Ehmann Olive Company was located for many years, but 49er Olive Oil can claim to have originated in practically the same spot as Ehmann Olive Co., so it is fitting that we had a table at the festival, and I think Freda herself smiled down on the effort.

The 49er Olive Oil booth at the 2nd Annual Olive Festival in Oroville--the food and recipes were provided by the festival

This week I also shipped two bottles of 49er Olive Oil to another successful entrepreneurial woman who cares about carefully preparing quality food: Aviva Goldfarb, author of The Six-O'clock Scramble cookbooks, and host of, a website and meal-planning service. Aviva and I are old friends, but I think her interest in 49er Olive Oil is apart from that, and that it reflects parallels between the concept of "community entrepreneurship" and Aviva's work as a food/family/community guru. Aviva does not just write and sell cookbooks; She initially started, I believe, by building a mailing list of other moms who were facing food-preparation challenges, and sharing recipes and ideas with them. That is, she started by building a community, and later, this developed into various business ventures, and still, for Aviva, the ultimate goal seems to be growing a community of parents who can help each other live better, rather than just selling products and services. Like Freda Ehmann, Aviva's experiences as a woman probably helped define her approach, but again, I think the result is not so much a female-oriented enterprise, as much as a community-oriented one.

Of course my own approach to entrepreneurship has been heavily influenced by Rachel Farrell, founder of Harmony Health Family Resource Center, and its Eating Well Cafe, and owner of Harmony Health Medical Clinic, Baby Buddies Birth Center, and a Linda Laundry. Rachel is currently in the process of merging the Medical Clinic with the Resource Center to create a larger role for Harmony Health as a nonprofit rural medical clinic. So while Rachel probably can profit individually more handsomely if she maintains ownership of a private medical clinic, her goal of transforming the clinic into a nonprofit reflects her broader definition of the bottom line as including what is best for the community and her patients, rather than what is best for her bank account. By merging the clinic with the resource center, both enterprises will be able to function more optimally, and, more importantly, both the patients of the clinic and the clients of the resource center will have more services available to them, which should improve their outcomes. What Rachel knows, and what she has taught me and many in the community, is that for sick people to get well, they need a healthy community to live in, for healthy communities to thrive, they need access to quality medical and social services. So in some ways, the Clinic and the Resource Center were always working together towards the same goals, but now, they will become one larger community enterprise.

Darro and Olivia Grieco, building the olive community at the Olive Festival

Berkeley Olive Grove 1913 was also at the Oroville Olive Festival, and they evidently sold quite a few cases. Darro and Olivia Grieco are excellent community entrepreneurs, who not only focus on producing excellent quality oil--Their late harvest Mission oil (which, to my tastebuds, is basically indistinguishable from 49er Olive Oil's Vintage Mission oil, and of course, it came from the same grove and harvest period) won Best in Show at the Los Angeles Olive Oil Competition--they also spend a great deal of time and effort building a community around olive oil. For example, they pack up their truck every Saturday to drive to Berkeley Farmer's Market to sell oil, but the real profit there is the chance to chat up folks at they come by, and to share the many materials Olivia has created to help folks understand how to appreciate olive oil--hand outs, posters, cards, etc. packed with information.

Recently I was contacted by a group of growers from Dobbins/Oregon House in Yuba County to talk about partnering with Yuba College to promote local/slow agriculture. Calling themselves "North Yuba Grown", this group aims not only to expand the market for the wonderful produce being grown in the Yuba Foothills, but to contribute to the economic and physical health of the county. I am still learning about them and their plans, but clearly they, too, see the benefits of building a community of growers and consumers, for the mutual benefit of each. Yesterday I got to go on a farm tour put on just for us by North Yuba Grown, and, based on the Lavender Lemonade, Lavender Ice Cream,  organic salad greens and chicken eggs, rustic bread, and Apollo Olive Oil and Apollo Balsamic Vinegar they fed us, I can say that I am so far a True Believer in North Yuba Grown. They are a community of entrepreneurs who are taking community entrepreneurship in a delicious direction.

 As much as I dislike selling olive oil, the 2012 batch of Vintage Mission 49er Olive Oil is nearly sold out. There are still bottles available at The Eating Well, but most of the cases I have been trying to move, have moved. Who knows what the coming harvest season will bring? The crop looks to be a good one, but I am not sure yet where and when our next Community Olive Harvest will be. Stay tuned!

Today is the 100th birthday of Woody Guthrie, the legendary bard who wrote "This Land is Your Land". Woody always knew that healthy food, healthy communities, and healthy economic relationships all go together:

Pastures of Plenty
Words and Music by Woody Guthrie

It's a mighty hard row that my poor hands have hoed
My poor feet have traveled a hot dusty road
Out of your Dust Bowl and Westward we rolled
And your deserts were hot and your mountains were cold
I worked in your orchards of peaches and prunes
I slept on the ground in the light of the moon
On the edge of the city you'll see us and then
We come with the dust and we go with the wind
California, Arizona, I harvest your crops
Well it's North up to Oregon to gather your hops
Dig the beets from your ground, cut the grapes from your vine
To set on your table your light sparkling wine
Green pastures of plenty from dry desert ground
From the Grand Coulee Dam where the waters run down
Every state in the Union us migrants have been
We'll work in this fight and we'll fight till we win
It's always we rambled, that river and I
All along your green valley, I will work till I die
My land I'll defend with my life if it be
Cause my pastures of plenty must always be free

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Popcorn Economy

"Olive, My Love", a music video of the 2012 Community Olive Harvest

Of course the big news since my last post is the successful completion of the Second Annual Community Olive Harvest. The video above tells the story, and if a picture is worth a thousand words, then video, at 24 frames per second, can be a prodigious storyteller. In any event, I can't really put into words the joy I experience while picking olives with others, on a beautiful day, in a gorgeous spot, all for the purpose of raising funds for a good cause, so the video, hopefully, captures some of that experience, and perhaps can help attract others to future events. Darro and Olivia, for their part, have been busily preparing their property to receive agritourists. I was not able to go, but earlier this week they held a catered event in their newly tiled and painted tasting room, and I'm told that they successfully created a few new converts to the olive oil faith, and specifically, to Berkeley Olive Groves 1913's early and late oils. Meanwhile, other olive oil producers seem to be pursuing the similar goals of creating educational olive oil agritourism experiences. Lucero Olive Oil, for example, has been holding events with tastings, live music, mill tours, etc. and indeed, the whole town of Corning is branding itself as a destination spot for olive oil afficionados. Joe Mueller, who used to manage the Teichert Grove, is now working with a group in the Capay Valley to develop some sort of olive oil attraction. I do not know the details yet, but I think there may be a connection to the Indian tribe that runs the Cache Valley Casino. Sounds big.  

In short many in the olive oil industry seem to realize that in order to grow, more Americans need to be educated about and turned on to olive oil, but on the other hand, there still seems to me to be quite a bit of elitism in the industry that prevents it from doing all it could/should to expand appreciation for olive oil. For example, one often hears the observation that UC Davis is going to do for olive oil what it did for the wine industry--i.e., take it from a small, hobby-based community to a global industry, and that today, the California olive oil industry is where the wine industry was in the early 70s or so. But I personally don't think the wine industry should be the role model for the California olive oil community. Wine is an often overpriced product in this country, whose cultural meaning is associated with things like snobbery, pretentiousness, and elitism. Drinking wine seems to require considerable stores of both financial capital and cultural capital (i.e., knowledge and ability to appreciate wine). But while this sort of exclusivity works well for wine producers (or at least did when the economy was booming and folks had discretionary spending for luxury goods), I believe American olive oil should strive to be accessible as opposed to exclusive, and simple to understand, as opposed to complex and aloof. I got to see Tom Mueller's book release event for Extra Virginity at UC Davis, and he likes to refer to extra virgin olive oil as "fresh fruit juice" because he thinks this will help demystify the substance and help consumers correctly distinguish between imported oils and the fresher domestic ones. In that sense, he is pushing olive oil in the direction of American beer makers, who, I believe, also challenged European imports by comparing beer to "fresh bread", and marketing American beers as fresher and therefore superior to imported beers. I certainly agree with the goals of demystifying olive oil and emphasizing freshness and domestic production as key selling points, but I don't find the "fruit juice" metaphor very appealing for some reason. It just seems sort of patronizing to refer to oil as juice, because it is not accurate, and therefore sort of dishonest. Olive oil is not olive juice, so why call it that? If the main problem with European oils, according to Tom Mueller, is their lack of honesty, then why is calling olive oil "juice" better? A better strategy for the industry, it seems to me, is to stop defining California olive oil in opposition to European oil, and to promote it simply as a healthy, tasty, useful product made in California for the American consumer.

From l to r: Olive Oyl Popped Corn, a Whirley-Pop, one of the last bottles of last year's 49er Olive Oil

So, I was happy to receive a package of Olive Oyl Popped Corn that my wife picked up at The Nugget  Market (speaking of overpriced and snobby...). Here is a product that promotes olive oil for the right reasons--it is a healthier, tastier fat to use to make popped corn than alternatives like butter--but does so matter-of-factly, in a distinctly American cultural frame--no images of Italian villas or ancient vined columns here, just Popeye's girlfriend in all her gawky glory. And it is good! Of course, the oil they used to pop the corn probably came from Italy, but you can't have everything! Unless, of course, you purchase a Whirley-Pop, which I did for my wife for Christmas. With this handy-dandy gizmo you can use a tablespoon of 49er Olive Oil (or your favorite brand of California olive oil) to make a half-cup of delicious, healthy popped corn in less time than the microwave stuff! That is, if you can find popping corn anywhere in your community, which unfortunately I could not in mine during X-mas time, so we couldn't try out the Whirly-Pop right away. Which brings me to my theory of the Popcorn Economy:

When the economy was booming and American consumerism was at its high point, microwave popcorn virtually replaced old-fashioned popping corn. Why make your own, when Orville Redenbacher would do it for you, in a variety of mouth-watering flavors? But in the current economy, folks seem to be embracing a range of domestic pleasures, possibly while enjoying "staycations" and a general reduction in their rate of discretionary spending. So, when I got the Whirley-Pop, it was the last one in the store (and showed signs of being returned already, so the store may have been sold out of Whirly-Pops at some point), and then, when I went to the grocery store to buy popping corn, there wasn't any. When I asked the clerk about it, we went to the popcorn area, which featured almost an entire aisle of microwave popcorns, but only one sliver of shelf space for pop corn kernels, and they were completely sold out. Same story at two other grocery stores in town--sold out of regular pop corn kernels. So my theory is that popping one's own corn has become popular again, because it is cheaper, more fun, and healthier for one's family than nuking some kernels in a "this side up" package marinating in real imitation movie theater butter-like topping. Only the popcorn industry hasn't caught up yet, so the stores are quickly selling out of Whirly-Pops and kernels. If my theory is correct, then Olive Oyl Popped Corn may not have a corner on the olive oil-popcorn market, and folks will also buy olive oil to make their own home-made popcorn.  Anyway, I finally did find some kernels to pop, but...

The kernels I bought are from Pop Secret (a major producer of microwave popcorn), and although American food labels generally seem to have less information than food labels in many European nations, this label does reveal a few secrets about Pop Secret. One is that the company evidently uses a proprietary crop known as "Pop Secret Premium Jumbo Popping Corn", and the other is that Pop Secret is really a product from Diamond Foods, a major food producer in California's Central Valley. I am not quite sure how it would be possible to copyright corn, unless Diamond is using genetically-modified organisms (GMOs), but my point is that my quest to pop an honest bowl of popcorn for my family is incomplete: Even when I did find actual kernels to pop in the Whirley-Pop, they are more like real imitation corn kernels, complete with their own corporate trademark,  than a simple grain grown in the earth, somewhere reasonably close by. The Whirley-Pop, for its part, was bought at Target, a large French multinational, but it is produced by Wabash Valley Farms, in Indiana, and seems to me to be an example of good, old-fashioned American ingenuity and quality craftsmanship. In the Popcorn Economy, we need more enterprises like Wabash Family Farms, who offer products their workers are ostensibly proud to make and sell, and that families are happy to buy and use, and fewer companies like Pop Secret, which sells a slickly packaged product that may or may not be very honest in terms of how it is made and labeled. In such an economy, I think consumers would embrace a California olive oil that is presented as fresh, simple, and real (especially if it is inexpensive), but they might turn away from California olive oils that are presented as highly sophisticated,  exotic, or status-conferring. I'm not saying the California Olive Oil Council should take a cue from the California Raisin Advisory Board and start airing TV commercials with singing animated olives (Though the Led Zeppelin tune in the video above could be pretty cute!), but if all of the industry's outreach is in exclusive places like Napa and Whole Foods and to the affluent folks who frequent them, I doubt the industry will grow in the ways imagined by its current leaders. Regular folks need and deserve to be clued into the benefits of olives, too. Olive Power to the People!