Photograph courtesy California Olive Ranch
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California Olive Ranch manages over 14,000 acres across Northern California. Much of that land was previously used to grow far more water-intensive crops.
Photograph courtesy California Olive Ranch

A Calif. Olive Oil Maker Thrives, Despite the Drought

California is in the middle of a historic drought, but nearly half a million olive trees are thriving in the state. What’s more, the trees have been planted on land previously used to grow crops that required thousands of gallons of water.

The olives are being grown by California Olive Ranch (COR), which manages over 14,000 acres across Northern California. CEO Gregg Kelley says before olives, much of the land was being used for unsustainable agriculture. An example of that—the west side of the Sacramento Valley was previously planted with rice. “That land is in a very marginal water district,” Kelley says. Rice prefers to grow in clay soil that limits water percolation “We were able to take that ground and plant a permanent crop—olives—that are highly water efficient relative to most other permanent crops,” he adds.

COR started in 1998, but it took some time for them to hit their stride. Initially, they irrigated and added nitrogen, treating the olive trees like other orchard fruits (peaches and almonds, for instance), only to find that the trees grew tall and vigorous but produced little fruit. In time, COR learned that less water and fewer nutrients produced better yields and tastier olives. This cut their agricultural costs significantly. Olives require less than half the usual minimum amount of water necessary to grow almonds for a year (1.25 acre-feet of water, compared to 3-6 acre-feet, according to Kelley). “It’s a natural fit,” Kelley says. “It’s a drought tolerant permanent crop and a high quality healthy product that works with the American diet.”

Beyond the decision to plant olive trees in areas without abundant natural water, COR introduced a new way of growing and harvesting the fruit. First, they modified the growth of the tree: Aggressive pruning (called “espalier” in fancy landscape circles) kept the trees flat and low, shaped more like vineyard plantings. The fruit appears on the face of the plant, in much the same way as grape clusters. With this change of face, COR then adapted technology used for harvesting grapes. This let them move the olives from branch to bottle faster—within six hours in most cases—and maintain the fresh, grassy flavor currently in fashion for olive oil.

But getting grocery stores to stock the oil was a challenge. According to Kelley, “We had very little negotiating power, like none. People thought we were crazy. We would visit a buyer at major and minor grocers and they would tell us it would never work. People wanted the Italian oil, despite our attempts to educate them. We were the first olive oil that had the buyers taste the product. Once people taste truly extra virgin olive oil for the first time, the light bulb goes off. We call it ‘The Eureka Moment.’”

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COR’s olives move from branch to bottle within six hours of harvest. Photograph courtesy California Olive Ranch

COR has since seen significant expansion nationally across the board; the oils are in major grocery chains, specialty food shops, and big box retailers. In 20,000 grocery stores, COR has more than four percent of the market share. COR oil also appears in products ranging from high-end salad dressings and microwave popcorn to recipes from José Andres, Wolfgang Puck, and in California Pizza Kitchen and Panera restaurants. In a 2015 taste test of over 100 olive oils, Real Simple magazine staffers selected California Olive Ranch olive oil as the “Best Budget Choice,” claiming a “smooth, subtle taste [with] gentle apple notes with a hint of spice.”

Last September, COR worked with the California legislature to establish a state commission responsible for grading standards of California olive oils, to ensure customers that if olive oil was labeled as coming from California, it was actually grown and milled there. And a big part of that legislation revolved around research and technology applications for the harvest—like modifying the tree growth and automated olive picking, which COR is championing—that could advance the entire industry.

Focusing on quality and consistency in production—concepts that have held true in craft beer, coffee, cheese, and wine—is what COR leadership believes will drive consumption and brand loyalty. And maybe lead to more acres of olives.

“We feel confident that olives have a very bright future in California,” says Kelley.

Cathy Barrow is the author of the food blog Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Kitchen. She has also written for the Washington Post, New York TimesSaveur, Garden and GunSouthern Living, and NPR, among others. She lives in Washington, DC, with her husband, Dennis, two schnauzers, and an all-white cat. In 2015, she won the prestigious IACP Award for best single-subject cookbook for Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Practical Pantry. She’s on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.