Olives and history

An interview with a North State olive rancher becomes a lesson in the past

Naturally, as a journalist, I love a good story. I also have a keen interest in history—whenever I get a chance to dig through old newspaper archives or search the photographs in Meriam Library's Special Collections, I jump at it. I can get lost in those things quite easily, winding my way down the rabbit hole until reality—usually a deadline—snaps me back into the present.

I recently had the opportunity to interview Gene Stewart, who owns 20 acres of olive orchards in Orland, for this week's Farm to Table issue, and our discussion meandered a bit, from table olives to Roy Rogers to Stewart's family roots that run deep in Butte and Glenn counties.

Stewart's family moved to the area with the '49ers. They didn't strike it rich, though, and became teamsters instead, moving cattle all over Northern California. The matriarch of his mother's side was close to Annie Bidwell, and her brothers were rodeo stars. Roy Rogers came to town and befriended them—Stewart has a photo to prove it.

Stewart's grandfather moved to the farm where he now lives 110 years ago. “Some of those trees are just as old,” he said. He used to spend summers there, working the orchards, and he decided at the age of 14 that he wanted it to become his life's work. In 1973, he moved there permanently. “It's just like my own little Bidwell Park, the perfect little place if you want to be alone,” he mused.

These days, Stewart still does a lot of the orchard work himself, from serving as foreman to the picking crews he hires—the majority of his crops are table olives, which require hand-picking—to dumping and hauling everything to the Bell-Carter Foods plant in Corning, where they're processed and canned.

Things certainly have changed, industry-wise, over the years, Stewart told me. For instance, finding good pickers has gotten harder. “In the '80s, contractors got greedy,” Stewart said. “They started showing up with half a crew instead of a full crew.” The table olive picking season is relatively short—six weeks—and once the fruits turn purple, they're no longer viable for canning. You can pick a whole lot more olives, faster, with a full crew.

The good news, however, is that Stewart's business is poised to boom this year with the increase in demand for table olives. Last year, he said, the price was around $800-$900 per ton for Sevillanos, which he grows, and this year it's closer to $1,300.

It's always fun when an interview on one subject can veer in a completely different direction. Thanks, Gene, for sharing with me your family history—and your own story of life on a North State olive ranch.