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.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing the dreams and carrying them forward!!!!