A never-ending cycle

Local olive grower’s operation requires a year-round effort

Lewis Johnson is a third-generation olive farmer.

Lewis Johnson is a third-generation olive farmer.

Photo by Ken Smith

It’s harvest season for table olives, the busiest time of the year for Butte View Olive Co. owner Lewis Johnson.

“I’m up at 4 a.m. every day to have some breakfast and leave home by 5 o’clock,” Johnson said of his regular routine during a recent phone interview at the end of a long day. Butte View’s labor force peaks at about 20 workers this time of year. Lewis’ days, of late, are generally spent organizing and directing picking crews on the more than 150 acres of orchards spread across several locations in Palermo and Wyandotte

“It’s a hand-picked crop,” Johnson noted, explaining he only grows varieties traditionally harvested for table olives, and avoids newer, machine-picked varieties.

Butte View grows five types of olives—Mission, Ascalano, Manzanillo, Sevillano and Barouni—for canning and oil purposes, with only the first two listed varieties used for oil.

Being up before the sun is practically engrained in Johnson’s DNA. He is a third-generation olive farmer, and the headquarters of the Butte View operation are located at a Palermo ranch his grandfather bought in 1936.

The ranch is home to what has become the soul of Johnson’s operation, machinery designed to grind, press and bottle olive oil. The family grew exclusively for canning until 1996, but oil has eclipsed table olives as the farm’s primary focus since then. Lewis acquired his first machine to press and grind olives in 2001. Two years ago, he upgraded to new equipment that doubled the company’s capacity to process olives, from 1,000 to 2,000 pounds per hour. Between his own olives and those he presses for other growers, Johnson processes 300-500 tons of olives during the oil season.

A great view of the Sutter Buttes from Johnson’s Palermo ranch inspired the company’s name.

Photo by Ken Smith

The equipment also helped lead Johnson to acquire another olive oil label, Stella Cadente. The former owners took their olives to Butte View to process into oil, and decided to sell him the business in 2007. Stella Cadente is distributed nationally, while Butte View Olive Oil is found at stores throughout the North State and Nevada.

“It’s got its ups and downs, both the canning and the oil industries, but the oil industry is definitely up and coming,” Johnson said. “Most California olive oils are all very good quality, so we do a lot of different flavors to distinguish ourselves from others. We also have our own pressing equipment, so we can do our own work in a timely manner and have a lot more control over what we are doing.”

Some of Butte View’s flavored oils include garlic, basil, lemon, lime and blood orange.

Johnson said he’s been fortunate thus far during California’s drought: “Olives are very tolerant to low water, but if you’re trying to produce a crop, you definitely need a decent water supply,” he said.

“My water district [South Feather Water & Power] is probably the best in the state,” he continued. “There’s been some long-range planning done back in the late 1950s and early ’60s that allows us to be in a very favorable [position], as far as this drought’s concerned. But I know some [olive farmers] in other areas have had some serious problems.”

Still, Johnson is not completely unaffected, as he mentions during a rundown of his annual routine.

“We’ll finish up for the cannery around early October, then start up the press and run it until January or February. Over the last while, it seems like once we finish pressing, with this low rain, we start farming right off the bat. We’ve gotta irrigate and get everything ready, which brings us all the way back around.

“It’s a never-ending cycle.”