Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Olive oil

This one was pretty cool; I'd never been on an actual farm until I wrote this. I got a pretty good picture of Gus Lohse pointing to one of his plants.

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Artois to have ‘largest olive oil processing plant in the Americas’
By Sam Bhagwat
of The Valley Mirror

Artois — Olive oil is coming here, big time.

A new trend in agriculture has triggered plans to build the "largest olive oil processing plant in the Americas" here in Glenn County, and could provide nearly 50 jobs during harvest season this year, a number that will likely double in years to come.

Glenn County has long been home to traditional olive orchards, which grow large, hand-picked fruit intended for table consumption – the "put it on your fingers" type. In contrast, the new fruit is smaller, not suited for children’s play-eating but perfect for oil production.

In 1999, California Olive Ranch brought three varieties of olives grown in Spain and Greece to Oroville to see how they fared in California weather. Seeing good results, they’ve planted 1,800 acres in Glenn County, and in December submitted plans to build the olive oil plant a couple of miles east of Artois.

California Olive Ranch success has inspired others.

"Four or five years ago, there wasn't one tree" in Glenn County, said Bill Krueger, a local UC farm advisor. "Now, there's more oil olive trees than table olives."

Krueger estimates that 4,000 acres of oil olive trees have been planted, with around half ready for harvest this fall.

Some farmers, like Gus Lohse of Carriere Farms, have even uprooted some old table olive trees to make room for the new oil olive trees.

What's driving the change?

Economics, says Mr. Lohse. Oil olive varieties are worth less money, but are far cheaper to grow. Mechanically harvested, the fruit may be bruised. Since oil olives are bound for pressing, that’s not a problem.

With recent concerns about finding labor to pick fruit during harvest season, growing mechanically harvested fruit is just smart business.

“People will often say, ‘I didn’t get my [table] olives picked because I couldn’t find any pickers,’” says assistant agricultural commissioner Jean Miller. With oil olives, "one machine can pick what it takes 40 laborers to do," says Alan Greene, vice president of sales and marketing at California Olive Ranch.

The machine is “over the row,” sitting on top of the row of dwarf trees, shaking the fruit off into baskets on both sides. The trees are kept in long rows by trellises; as they age, they will need continual trimming to keep them short enough for the machine.

That’s a challenge, but the list of benefits – to farmers and to the county – goes on.

The biggest is jobs.

Mr. Lohse says that he uses five hands to work each machine, adapted grape harvesters that can cover 300 acres in harvest season.

Mr. Greene wouldn’t give similar numbers for California Olive Ranch. But doing the math with Mr. Lohse's, THE MIRROR estimated that around 35 workers will be needed for the nearly 2,000 acres in harvest this season. Within two to three years, as currently planted trees grow to maturity, that number will grow to around 70.

Some of those jobs will no doubt replace other picking jobs. But because oil olives are hardier and “can go in on ground that others can’t,” as Mr. Greene puts it, the new trend will create new jobs that otherwise wouldn’t exist.

And if all goes well at the processing plant — plans are under consideration now by the county — it will employ a handful of workers this year. But in a few years, Mr. Greene says, it will be at full capacity, employing another 30 to 50 workers.

While the plant will employ mainly receiving-type labor to handle the fruit, jobs in the field will be different than traditional olive harvesting jobs.

“This replaces hand-picking jobs with skilled equipment operator jobs,” Mr. Greene said.

Mssrs. Greene, Krueger and Lohse list other advantages. Oil olive plants don’t use much pesticide, for one. Mr. Lohse says he hasn’t applied any so far, because his plants haven’t needed them.

Because these olives are less susceptible to pests, Mr. Krueger points out, they can also expand the tax base for county pest management services while requiring little work themselves.

Water is another plus. There are over three times as many trees per acre than table olive trees, but they need less than half the water, 18 to 24 acre-inches instead of four acre-feet.

On the marketing side, Mr. Greene and Mr. Lohse are enthusiastic as well, noting that current domestic olive oil production is less than 1 percent of domestic olive oil consumption.

Mr. Krueger is enthusiastic too, but has a few reservations.

"What they don't tell you is, every olive-oil producing country looks to the U. S. as their salvation," he said, pointing to Spain and Italy, Australia, South America and northern Africa.

And while production is currently going well, Mr. Krueger continues, there are three main unanswered questions for the future.

"Can you maintain that sort of production? Can you maintain the mechanical harvestability? And can you sell the oil at a price that's profitable?” he asks. “It’s one giant experiment."

Mr. Lohse acknowledges the point but calls oil olives instead an “opportunity,” arguing the economics make sense enough to deal with the uncertainty.

"We're all learning how to do this,” he says. “Many of the answers we'll only get along the way."

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