Oroville’s olive secret

You probably didn’t know it, but Oroville’s renowned for its olives

I LOVE OLIVES <br>Jamie Johansson, producer of Lodestar Olive Oil, said that although the olive industry in Oroville is booming, it’s threatened by the destructive olive fruit fly.

Jamie Johansson, producer of Lodestar Olive Oil, said that although the olive industry in Oroville is booming, it’s threatened by the destructive olive fruit fly.

Photo by Tom Angel

Nice olives: In the prestigious 2001 Los Angeles County Fair’s “Oils of America” tasting, nine medal winners (out of 18 categories) were made with olives grown in Oroville.

World-class olives aren’t what pop into the minds of most people when they think of Oroville, but increasingly Oroville is becoming home to a booming olive industry.

Generally, the local olive operations are small—there are just 2,000 acres of olives in Oroville—but the quality of the local fruit is renowned, said olive grower Jamie Johansson. The hot and dry summers typical of the Mediterranean are perfect for growing olives, and buyers from around the country are coming to Oroville to purchase olives.

Big-name olive oil producers such as Sciabica and Berianni buy Oroville olives for their oils, as do upward of a dozen smaller, boutique-style olive oil makers from around the state, Johansson said. His family’s 200-acre olive orchard supplies bulk handmade olive oil and fresh olives to 10 regional sellers, who sell his products under their own labels, he said.

“Corning claims to be the olive capital, but you could really make the argument that Oroville is the olive oil capital,” Johansson said.

Apparently, the word that Oroville is a great place to grow olive trees and produce oil has been out for some time. One of the largest olive tree nurseries in the world—based in Spain—has 300,000 olive tree seedlings growing in Oroville.

“It’s definitely become big business,” said Johansson, who’s a board member of the California Olive Oil Council. “But it’s still small, so there’s a high-quality product being produced.”

Jamie Johansson didn’t set out to be an olive farmer.

He was raised in Humboldt County and majored in political science at Colorado State University. After college, he took a job for working for Congressman Jim Ryan, R-Kansas, but made a drastic career change after a business trip to Washington, D.C., in 1993.

“I just thought, ‘This isn’t for me,'” Johansson, who’s 33, said. “The pace was crazy. … And now, here I am.”

Olives in the raw

Photo courtesy of Google Image Archives

The olive business is good in Butte County, but Johansson, like all olive growers, has a new worry these days. The threat comes in the form of the olive fruit fly, a tiny pest that has the potential to deliver a staggering blow to olives all over the state. The fly lays eggs in a growing olive, and the larvae that hatch eat the olive inside the shell.

“You open up the shell and it’s just ugly,” Johansson said. “Everyone’s worried about it.”

Growers all over the state consider the threat an emergency, and although Butte County ag officials have found several dozen olive fruit flies in local orchards, Johansson thinks the damage from the pest will be most severe in Southern California. There, the growers tend to large-scale farm operations where the flies’ destructiveness will be harder to spot.

That’s because the larvae eat the developing olive from the inside out, and the grower won’t know the olive is destroyed until it’s cut open. That means that the large-scale farmer, not having the ability to check the crop thoroughly for damage, could sell the fruit to canners or oil producers without knowing it’s ruined, he said.

Smaller-scale olive growers, he said, will have an easier time checking for damage.

“That’s really why it’s important for people to know where their food is coming from,” he said. “When you know what you’re growing, you know what you’re producing, and that makes a better product.”

He pointed out that the best olive oil often comes from smaller operations where the grower has ensured that his crop is pest-free. He produces 5,000 gallons of his Lodestar Olive Oil a year and sells it for $12 a bottle.

“We’re a small grower, but it’s a very high-quality product,” he said. “The same bottle would cost $18 to $25 anywhere else.”

In Butte County, the olive industry is worth about $2 million a year, said Agricultural Commissioner Richard Price.

His department is working with local growers to minimize the risk posed by the olive fruit fly. He said the 50 commercial growers in Butte County are developing a defensive plan against the threat.

Because the fly’s damage isn’t apparent by just looking at the growing fruit, growers have the daunting challenge of preventing the fly from invading their orchards in the first place, Johansson said. There are insecticides that appear to be useful against the olive fruit fly, but none that are specifically approved for it.

“We’re going to have to spray some, put traps out at the right times," he said. "There’s a lot we can do."