Orland man’s olive-preserving formula has vast potential
Local farmer Merritt Erickson does not look or play the part of an ambitious entrepreneur potentially on the verge of a huge payday.
His face and hands are tinged red from countless hours of work in the sun, and his demeanor is kind and humble. At age 60, the Orland-area olive and almond grower may have his days of hard work behind him.
Seven years ago, Erickson approached Chico State University chemistry Professor Jim Postma with an ambitious idea: He enjoyed the taste of home-cured olives picked from his 125-acre farm in Orland so much that he wanted to create a way to keep them fresh year-round. He envisioned a potential market for olive connoisseurs who wanted to do the curing themselves.
“Once you’ve tasted a home-cured olive, you’re going to want them every month of the year,” he said.
Postma, who has worked in the Chemistry Department at Chico State for 28 years, took up the challenge. He recognized that he would have to develop a preservative solution that fought off bacteria and mold growth without sacrificing flavor in order to get uncured olives on grocery-store shelves. Though he didn’t have much experience with olives, he knew where to get started.
When processing plants get backed up and can’t process the olives fast enough to maintain freshness, they make a preservative mixture of vinegar and sodium benzoate to hold them for short periods of time, Postma explained.
Erickson funded the experiments of Postma and Chico State biology student James Conroy and three other Chico State students, whose various solutions began with the standard factory preservative as their foundation.
“We also figured that the kind of people who want to cure their own olives would appreciate an organic or back-to-nature thing,” Postma said. “So I suggested we try ascorbic acid instead of the sodium benzoate, because that would be much more acceptable to that group, and they’re fairly similar chemically.”
Of the solutions tested on samples of Erickson’s olives, the one containing ascorbic acid clearly had the best results.
“The ascorbic-acid version looked really, really good,” Postma said. “Even more than a month later they came out bright green and firm. First guess, and off we were.”
But things weren’t as easy as all that.
Bringing the product to market would require the approval of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. And although the scientists weren’t canning fruit for people to eat directly, their formula was subject to the same stringent FDA regulations. In short, Postma and company had to prove that the solution killed bacteria.
When tests from both Chico State and a commercial lab confirmed that the solution killed salmonella, E. coli and listeria, Erickson and Postma realized that the formula potentially could have a much broader application than just olive preservation.
“That’s really where we had this transition, where we realized we could use it in different contexts,” Postma said. “Partly because at that same time, [organic mega-grower] Earthbound Farm had a problem with lettuce contamination, and almond growers were having similar problems. So we asked, could we use this in those contexts?”
While independent lab tests have shown the solution safely kills bacteria on lettuce, spinach, almonds and olives, Erickson saw an even larger market for his product.
“We found out that you could use it for not just food, but [also for] counters in your kitchen, your bathroom, calcium deposits on your shower doors, shower heads and coffee makers,” Erickson said. “It’s janitorial.”
While it may seem odd to use the same product to sterilize both table tops and leafy greens, Erickson and Postma insist taste is not compromised and believe there’s a strong market for an organic disinfectant. The current agriculture industry standard is diluted bleach, which Erickson and Postma hope to replace in products labeled “organic,” despite considerable expense differences.
“Bleach is so incredibly cheap, and works at fairly low concentrations, so you have to have an obvious advantage for people to spend a little more,” Postma said. “What I find odd is that bleach is acceptable even under official organic labels, because I don’t think of it as organic in that sense.”
With previously unanticipated uses now apparent, Postma named their solution Organic Chico Wash.
For now, Erickson mixes the solution himself in a small workshop on his farm. He is in preliminary negotiations with a packaging company in Redding in anticipation of orders becoming unmanageable for his lone-eagle operation. Meanwhile, he can produce 270 gallons in about 30 minutes.
The Orland man is also putting his marketing degree from Chico State to good use, successfully pitching the Organic Chico Wash to Caltrans, which will be using the formula in the agency’s rest stops; the cafeteria in Chico State’s Bell Memorial Union; and Northwest Hazelnut Co. in Portland, Ore. Moving forward, Erickson and Postma will continue to explore the potential applications beyond the agricultural and janitorial sectors.
Erickson’s original modest goal started a chain of events that might pay dividends he never could have envisioned, and he is tremendously excited.
“It’s like winning the lottery, but we haven’t gotten paid yet,” he said.