Artois, Calif. Destined to be U.S. olive oil capital

Google Artois, Calif. and there is not much to be found, other than it is an unincorporated farming community in Glenn County, in the northern Sacramento Valley.

Google it four years from now and it will read: Olive Oil Capital of California and the U.S. where more than one million gallons of premium American olive oil are processed annually from more than 4,000 acres of high-density olive orchards.

Roughly 2.5 million Spanish olive oil variety trees have been planted in the area in the past three years. Another 1,000 acres are likely to be planted in the same area within the next two years.

Plans have been submitted to Glenn County to build the first phase of an olive oil mill that in four years will be processing 40 tons of olives per hour into one million gallons of California olive oil.

All this is a sure sign that olive oil production, once an artisan pursuit, is moving very rapidly into the mainstream of California agriculture.

“Olive oil is changing the face of California agriculture,” said Alan Greene, vice president, sales and marketing for California Olive Ranch, Oroville, Calif.

Greene does not look like P.T. Barnum, as he stands on a canal bank overlooking the last of 4,000 acres to be planted this year. However, he and the dozen Spanish investors he works for are the left seat pilots of an agricultural rocket ship that he predicts will eventually soar to prominence, making California olive oil production rival wine grapes and almonds as a major horticultural crop in the state.

“I predict California will be producing more olive oil than Spain before I get out of the business,” said Greene. “I have 15 or 20 years to go, but I expect it will happen by then.” Spain is now responsible for 30 percent of the world's olive oil production, 138 million gallons.

California Olive Ranch (COR) lit the rocket fuse that is taking the Golden State's golden when its Spanish investors planted 500 acres of super high-density olive oil orchards in 1999 at Oroville, Calif., and built a state-of-the art oil mill.

Already, COR is producing 32 percent of California's annual oil production.

The Argbequia, Arbosana or Kornoeiki variety olives at Oroville are planted 5.5 feet apart down the row with a trellising system similar to grapes. The middles are 15-feet wide. Yields are about 5.5 tons per acre. A ton of these olives produces 45 gallons of high quality olive oil. They are mechanically harvested with minimal hand labor during the growing season.

Greene, a veteran of 17 years with Blue Diamond almonds before he went to the California Olive Ranch, estimates there could be as many as 10,000 acres of high-density olive orchards in California, including the 4,000 near Artois.

“We went looking for additional acreage in the Sacramento Valley, hoping to find about 800 acres. We eventually wound up with 1,800 and finished planting our last block this summer,” he said.

The other 2,200 acres in the Artois area are farmed by a half-dozen farmers alone or in partnerships, including the largest, Carriere Farms, an almond, walnut, and rice family farming operation that includes about 700 acres of olive orchards.

When (COR) moved into the area, Carriere had already planted 137 acres of super high-density olives and were looking to build a mill. However, as the remainder of what now totals 700 acres were planted, Carriere signed up to process its olive oil with COR.

It does not stop in Artois, according to Greene, president of the California Olive Oil Council.

Dino Cortopassi, a prominent Stanislaus County/Stockton, Calif. farmer is planting up to 1,000 acres in the Delta area and is building a mill, according to Greene.

A large mill is planned for Running Luck Ranch near Parlier, Calif. There is a large block of super high-density orchards going in on California's Central Coast with talk of a possible commercial mill. COR is not stopping at Artois and Oroville. Greene said the company is in escrow on land for new orchards and a mill in the Chowchilla/Madera area in the Central San Joaquin Valley. The California Olive Ranch acreage will not be as large in the southern valley as it is in Northern California, but we will plant orchards and have a mill for growers who want to get into olive oil production.”

He also reports that there are plans to plant 1,000 acres of high-density olives and build a mill in Arizona and there are several olive oil farms and mills in Texas.

There are about 27 smaller oil processing mills in the state, but most are small. According to the Web site,, there are more than 400 companies selling olive oil. More than 98 percent are in California.

All of this is because America has discovered olive oil. From 1991 to 2003, olive oil sales jumped 100 percent in the U.S. Consumption of olive oil here in 1982 was 8 million gallons. By 2002 it was 60 million gallons. Last year it was 75 million gallons.

”We do not have to create a market for California olive oil. All California has to do is go after a piece of the market that is there now and growing. If we can get just 10 percent of what the U.S. consumes, the California olive oil industry could be huge,” said Greene.

California's Mediterranean climate is ideal for olive oil production. California has been at it for 200 years, but up until now it has focused on table olives. Oils were strictly byproducts. California now supplies less than 1 percent of the U.S. market.

Paul Vossen, University of California cooperative Extension pomology farm adviser in Sonoma County, has been instrumental in the resurgence of the California olive oil industry. He estimates the 2007 California crop will be 500,000 gallons from all sources, including table fruit that might be diverted to oil.

Water is one of the biggest reasons California producers are looking at olives for oil. It uses less water than any other permanent crop. “We grow olives on 18 to 20 inches of water at Oroville. Olives do well on 24-inches of water. Compared to crops that require four acre feet, that is significant considering the current water situation in California,” said Greene. If a farmer wants to stay in farming, olives may be the answer.

“Now that the price of almonds is moving in the other direction, people are talking about diversifying. I had one grower who had planned on planting almonds and is now shifting to olives,” Greene noted.

Gus Lohse, a partner in Carriere Family Farms Olive Glen Orchards, said olives do well on non-class 1 soils.

“We grow walnuts and almonds as well as rice. Olives fit where walnuts may not,” he said.

The other issue growers bring up with Greene is labor demands for olive oil production. Unlike table olive production, there is little hand labor. “We say there are eight hours of hand labor per acre per year,” he said.

More hand labor is used in the first two years of an orchard's life. “We tell prospective growers that it costs about $700 per acre to produce an acre of olives, but that is $900 per acre for the first two years because of the training, tying and pruning involved,” said Greene.

It costs about $4,000 per acre to establish a super high-density orchard, not including land costs. The trellises for the Artois plantings are two-wire systems, offering more stability than the one-wire at Oroville. The trees are trained to a single leader to no more than 6.5 in height to accommodate mechanical harvesting with wine grape harvesters. While the spacing at Oroville is 5.5 feet between trees, some orchards on better ground in the Artois area are more closely spaced to control growth.

Greene cannot help but draw a parallel between California almonds and California olives. “When the almond industry began producing an average of 300 million pounds of almonds per year, industrial users began looking at almonds as an ingredient.

“I think the same thing will happen with California olive oil when we reach a level that assures consistent high volume. Health issues like trans-fat will drive people to a domestic supply of high quality olive oil. Once industrial users realize California can produce a large quantity of high-value olive oil, I think you will see switches from other oils to olive oils,” Greene said.

“In the 1950s and 1960s, California almonds were a distant second to Spain, but once we learned new almond farming techniques and new acres were planted, we blew past Spain in a hurry. I think we will do the same thing with olive oil before I leave the business,” he said.

When California Olive Ranch products hit the market, Greene said the focus was on the retail market, which requires considerable infrastructure. “However, what has taken off is the food service part of the business and the buy local mentality of buying California olive oil is having a big impact,” he said. Bolstering that have been articles about altered olive oils from Europe reaching the U.S.

“California is a trademark for good wine. Same thing is happening with olive oil. However, if the oil does not taste good, you will not get repeat customers. Fortunately, California olive oil tastes good,” he added.

Greene said he has no problem selling out COR olive oil each season. Unfortunately, the crops have been short the past two seasons. This year is expected to be back to normal, “and I have people calling every day wanting oil.”

COR has a standing contract for growers to deliver olives to them. It is a 70-30 split deal. “If oil is selling for $18.50 per gallon, growers get $9 upon delivery and COR keeps $5.55. The balance to growers comes from a pool. Payment is made by March 30 each year,” he said. Growers sign up for nine years with a 3-year evergreen clause, he added.

That pool is about to get huge for Greene, as he switches gears from planting to building the olive oil mill near Artois. It will be in the center of the 4,000 acres of high-density orchards. The longest haul is 5 miles. There could not be a more ideal situation for COR's new facility.

The time period between when the olives are mechanically harvested and delivered to the mill is critical to quality. “If you get the olives into the mill in 24 hours, you are in good shape, but 12 hours is much better and six is so good you cannot believe the olive oil quality.”

The first 10-ton per hour mill at Artois will be operational next season and the other three 10-ton capacity mills in place by 2010. “In three years we will be shipping from Artois alone three times more olive oil than the entire state produced in 2004, the last big harvest we have had,” he said.

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