How California Olive Ranch is transforming the olive-oil industry—and taking on the Europeans
When a food product is described as having “a fruity nose,” “a smooth and buttery tongue” and “a very slight peppery finish,” you know it’s appealing to gourmet tastes. And that, in a nutshell, is the story of the growing market for—and production of—olive oil in California.
Just as they have with wine and coffee, American consumers have become more sophisticated about olive oil in recent years. Perhaps it has to do with the popularity of the so-called “Mediterranean diet,” of which olive oil is a major part, or the increasing awareness that it is both delicious and healthful.
Whatever the reason, Americans are consuming more olive oil than ever before. And no company has taken better advantage of that growing market than Oroville-based California Olive Ranch. In just a few years, it has become the largest producer of olive oil in the country, and it’s now poised to offer a serious challenge to the foreign producers that dominate the U.S. market.
Right now more than 99 percent of the olive oil consumed in this country comes from overseas. The folks at COR are more than eager to grab more of this market, and they are convinced they are perfectly situated to do so. Anyone who understands what they have done so far would be hard-pressed, you might say, to disagree with them.
You can see tangible evidence of the company’s growth and optimism about the future about two miles west of Artois, in Glenn County, where Chico’s Modern Building Co. has been contracted to erect a $4 million, fully automated, 4-million-gallon storage-tank facility in the middle of about 200 acres of olive trees. When finished, it will be right next door—and connected by stainless-steel piping—to the large metal building that houses COR’s new state-of-the-art mill, which is still in the process of being built to full capacity.
During a recent tour, I saw dozens of hard-hatted construction workers swarming over the future storage site, finishing work on the foundation and putting together the giant metal trusses that eventually—when cranes lift them up—will support the roof of the new storage building, which will be 90 feet high. No signs of recession here.
When completed in 2012, the mill will have eight production lines, each capable of washing, crushing and kneading the olives and then extracting their oil at the rate of 10,000 tons per hour. During harvest season in the fall, explained Head Miller Bob Singletary during our tour, it will operate around the clock, seven days a week for 50 days. Two lines are now up and running, and two more will be ready by harvest season this fall, Singletary said, giving it the capacity to process 40,000 tons per hour.
The expansion of the facility is being timed to match the expansion in olive plantings going on statewide, and especially in Butte, Glenn and Tehama counties, already the epicenter of olive-oil production in the country. The company anticipates that an average of 5,000 acres of new plantings will go in every year for the next two decades, as more and more farmers see the potential in olive oil.
Even that will not be enough to meet the growing demand, as company President and CEO Gregg Kelley told the audience at the Jan. 14 Tri-County Economic Development Conference at Chico State University.
Not only is American consumption going up, but the biggest oil-producing countries, Spain and Italy, are hamstrung by out-of-date production methods and high labor costs, as well, Kelley said. As their European Union subsidies are being phased out, they are declining in production volume.
In other words, they are ripe for the picking, so to speak.
Bob Singletary certainly sees the potential. He’s a big, burly, genial man in his early 60s who’s been working for local olive-oil producers for 25 years, and he’s never been more excited about his product than he is now. He’s proud of the sparkling facility he oversees, and he’s convinced it represents the future of the industry in the United States.
Singletary knows olives, and he gave me a short history. People have been growing olives in this area since the first European-American settlers arrived, he said. Families used them for oil and eating. Then, in the very late 1800s, an Oroville woman named Freda Ehmann developed a method of curing them for eating and marketed them in the Bay Area and elsewhere. Today she is considered the “mother” of the California olive industry.
Her legacy remains alive today, in the form of the Ehmann Olive Co. and, more substantially, in the form of Bell-Carter Foods, in Corning, now the largest producer of table olives in the country.
It’s only recently that American consumers have developed a taste for olive oil. As a result, many boutique olive-oil companies have emerged in the area, with names like Lodestar, Tehama Gold and Pacific Sun. They make high-quality oils of many different kinds and flavors, but as Singletary explained, none has the combination of quality and volume production California Olive Ranch has.
Compared to their foreign counterparts, California producers are rookies in the olive-oil industry, and in several ways that has worked to their advantage. Most important, they started with relatively little acreage planted in olives. As they have increased that acreage, they have been able to implement a planting system that takes advantage of the advent of mechanical harvesting, which can pick a tree clean in two seconds. And no company has done this more effectively than California Olive Ranch.
That system, which the company imported from Spain in 1999, is called super-high-density planting. In this innovative system, the trees are purposely smaller and planted densely in rows, just four or five feet apart. This enables them to be harvested mechanically like other row crops, rather than painstakingly by hand. Since the system was implemented, COR has increased its holdings from 500 to 10,000 acres.
The orchards surrounding the company’s Artois facility are planted this way, and they look like no olive orchards you’ve seen. The trees, which are pruned back so as never to get higher than eight feet, look more like shrubs than trees. But they produce plenty of olives.
Freshness is key with olive oil, Singletary explained, noting that his company’s slogan is “the new taste of fresh.” Olives are a fruit, so they begin fermenting immediately after harvesting. The faster they can get through the milling process, the fresher the oil and the better the taste. COR does it in less than three hours, and often in no more than 90 minutes.
With hand picking, it can take more than a day to get the fruit to the mill and processed. By then the taste of the oil has changed. American consumers unfamiliar with truly fresh oil unfortunately “think that’s what olive oil is supposed to taste like,” Singletary said.
Anyone who has toured Chico’s Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. is familiar with that company’s highly sophisticated system for maintaining consistency in the product, including use of an in-house laboratory.
COR’s Artois mill has a similar lab. When a truck comes in, a sample of olives is quickly crushed and analyzed for oil and moisture content and acidity before the vehicle is unloaded. This enables COR to determine the quality of the olives and also to give the grower an immediate report on the condition of the fruit.
California growers have a big advantage over their overseas competitors in that 100 percent of their acreage is irrigated (in Spain, the figure is 13 percent; in Italy, it’s just 10 percent). Super-high-density growers use drip irrigation, which enables them to control the amount of water the trees consume and also to feed them important trace elements needed for good health and flavor.
Deciding how much water or trace elements to apply, or when to harvest the fruit, involves a certain amount of guesswork, and the feedback the lab provides is a big help in making such decisions.
The goal is to enable the grower to make any changes in his or her practices needed to make the next harvest as good as possible. “We want to produce the best olive oil in the world,” Singletary said, “and it all begins with the grower.”
Once the olives are unloaded, they are run through a washer to remove field dust and separate out stems and twigs, then conveyed into a crusher. When the olives have been mashed, the paste is fed into what is called a malaxer, which resembles a giant bread-kneading machine. The melaxer, Singletary explained, kneads the meat “to relax it,” so the oil can be extracted. After 45 minutes of this “relaxing,” pumps force the olive meal into a series of decanters that spin at high speeds, extracting the liquid oil and removing any trace solids. Finally, a centrifuge-like separator spins any residual water out of the liquid at 6400RPM.
The oil is then pumped through stainless-steel pipes into a holding tank, where it remains for at least a month, long enough for any remaining solids to settle to the bottom so they can be drained off. Nitrogen is pumped into the unfilled part of the tank to remove the oxygen and maintain freshness.
Eventually the oil is transported, with the same attention to detail, to the company’s mill and bottling plant on Lone Tree Road in Oroville.
COR uses just three of the more than 150 varieties of olives, Arbequina, Arbosana and Koroneiki, Singletary said. From these it makes several products with subtly different flavors, as well as a cooking oil blended from olive and canola oil. All of its olive oils are extra-virgin, which is the highest rating possible, and unfiltered and unrefined.
This is another advantage California olive oils have over their foreign counterparts. Only 25 percent of Spain’s product is extra-virgin olive oil, for example, and 61 percent requires refining. California oils, in contrast, are so pure after processing that 99.8 percent is EVOO and the remaining 0.2 percent is virgin, the second-highest quality.
If you equate mass production with mediocre quality and think COR’s oils couldn’t possibly be as good as those of the boutique producers, think again. Or ask Cook’s Illustrated what it thinks of California Olive Ranch’s product.
In its Sept. 1, 2009, issue, the prestigious food and cooking magazine’s editors taste-tested 10 California oils, including COR’s Arbequina. For comparison, they threw in a bottle of their favorite imported oil, an EVOO from Spain that sells for about $19 per half-liter.
Their findings? The top-ranked oil was still the Spanish oil, which their tasters praised for “its full, fruity, well-balanced flavor and low bitterness.”
But the big surprise was that “a domestic challenger ranked just below it. This extra-virgin oil, made from Arbequina olives, won raves for its fresh, sweet, fruity flavor and pleasing hint of bitterness.”
“[T]he California growers—particularly the folks [at COR] behind our favorite, relatively affordable oil—have clearly struck something promising. As they further refine their products, we’ll look for the day when we can pick up California olive oil in the supermarket, right next to the imported oils.”
By all indications, that day won’t be long in coming.