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

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