Olive growers confident of prospects

There’s palpable excitement in the voices of Gordon Wiebe and Richard Sawatzky as they talk of their newest farming venture — growing and processing olives for oil.

The two men, partners in Bari Olive Oil Co. and Wiebe Farms in Reedley, Calif., are riding the cresting wave of growers looking to find a crop that shows promise that will help them ride out the tough times for some other crops — in their case, the tree fruit Wiebe has grown for decades.

“We looked at almonds and pomegranates,” Wiebe said. “But olive oil kept coming to the top. For one thing, it answers the water issue, it takes a third of the water that’s required for tree fruit. It takes less pesticides, and we can farm it organic.”

In 2006, Wiebe and Sawatzky planted 50 acres of olive trees that can be mechanically harvested for oil. Two years later, they purchased the California Olive Oil Manufacturing Co., which was started by the Pantaleno family in 1936.

Wiebe and Sawatzky changed the name of the company to match the brand produced by the Pantalenos — Bari. It’s now the Bari Olive Oil Co. And they purchased mill equipment from Bari, Italy, hometown of the Pantalenos, this year. “It washes, crushes and spits out the oil,” Wiebe said.

He and Sawatzky hope to put the mill to the test soon, with their harvest starting the first week in November.

Wiebe acknowledges it’s a new direction for him and Sawatzky. “It’s a new challenge, we’re used to farming and production,” he said. “This dealing directly with the consumer is new. It’s kind of exciting. We see it as having potential, we’re all looking at how we can stay in business. We’re farmers. We have to stay in business and look at what we can grow in our area. We can’t move our business. You can’t move the dirt.”

The partners will be venturing into an arena far removed from that of tree fruit growing. One difference: Tree fruit that plumps with water content is a good thing. Not so with olives. Experts say extraction of the best oil comes when the fruit has a lot of water content at harvest.

There’s a boutique nature to much olive oil harvesting that does not pertain to tree fruit production.

For tree fruit, it’s exacting standards for ripeness, fruit in cardboard boxes, packed with care.

For olive oil, it can be – as it was in a Bari showcase at Fresno State University during a field day demonstration – the inviting appeal of stemmed glasses and the golden nectar of olives on linen.

Sawatzky said there have been challenges from the start.

“Gaining knowledge costs you. It has its price. But you tell a farmer he can’t do something and he’ll say, ‘Just watch.’”

One thing he said he had to learn was, “Let them go wild, they’re very resilient.”

“Have you ever seen somebody try to kill an olive tree in their backyard,” he asked. “They hang on.”

He was not joking about the hardiness of olive trees.

Sawatzky did acknowledge that when temperatures dropped to 22 degrees two years ago, some trees were lost. He said the Koroneiki appeared to be the most vulnerable. The partners also have Abrequina and Arbosana trees.

Sawatzky said some trees might have been saved by running water and spraying with some protective materials.

“We’re still learning,” he said.

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