Long before Napoleon invaded Egypt, before the Romans marched into Carthage, before Athens fell to Sparta—the olive conquered the Mediterranean. Olive trees (Olea europaea), native to the Mediterranean basin, are among the earliest known cultivated trees in the world, first domesticated between 6,000 and 8,000 years ago. Archaeologists have found olives in Egyptian tombs from 2000 B.C. Greek myth has Athena creating the olive tree to give to the Athenians, who then named their city after her.
Extraction of the oil of Olea europaea is no less ancient. A clay pot containing olive oil was found in the city of Ein Zippori, modern-day Israel, from 8,000 B.C. Olive oil was important enough to develop religious symbolism in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. And Homer famously called the stuff “liquid gold.”
Now this ancient icon is getting a modern makeover in California. In a planting layout known as super high density (SHD), olive trees are grown close together and trimmed like bushes—enabling farmers to squeeze in a staggering 900 trees per acre instead of the traditional 50. This process allows the trees to be harvested mechanically rather than by hand, saving a tremendous amount of time and money, and their fruit immediately pressed into oil. And what olive oil may have lost in poeticism to industrialized farming, it may be gaining in quality. California olive oils are becoming among the best in the world, and the New World industry is trying to position itself as a higher quality producer than Old World competitors like Italy, Greece and Spain.
In its millennia-long history, olive farming for oil remained virtually unchanged. Olive orchards stood, often with the same trees for hundreds of years, slowly producing fruit for the harvest every year in late autumn, when olives were harvested in one of two ways. The first is by shaking the tree to dislodge fruit and let them fall, and collecting them from the ground. The problem with this method is the fruit can be bruised from the landing, or mixed up with overripe fruit that is already on the ground, and both bruised and overripe fruit make poorer quality oil. The second method, handpicking the ripe fruit directly from the tree, better screens for quality, but can be incredibly time-consuming. While farming other crops became mechanized, olive farming stuck to its traditions.
Then in the 1980s, some olive growers in Spain and Italy, in order to maximize their yields per acre, began irrigating orchards and experimenting with planting trees closer together—about 300 trees per acre instead of the traditional 50. They also pruned the trees to reduce the space each occupied and began harvesting with mechanical tree shakers. These “high-density” orchards dramatically increased yields and profits for olive farmers.
Then the real leap forward came in the mid-1990s when a Spanish tree nursery company called Agromillora experimented with planting irrigated trees even closer to one another, only three or four feet apart, and in long rows, squeezing in up to 900 or 1,000 trees per acre. Agromillora used a common Spanish variety that grows like a bush, allowing the trees to be harvested with an over-the-top tree comber that strips the fruit from branches as it drives down the row. Harvesting by hand, one person can collect about 5 to 6kg of olives in an hour; with a mechanical harvester on a SHD orchard, one person can harvest up to 555,500 kg per hour.
Investors at Agromillora took this process, known as super-high-density (SHD) harvesting, and invested in a new company in California, founded in 1998. One of the pioneers in SHD farming in the state, California Olive Ranch is now the largest olive oil producer in California in an industry that has grown rapidly due to the California Central Valley’s suitable weather, robust infrastructure, and agricultural expertise.
In 1998 the first SHD olive acres were planted in California; by 2008, an industry survey found that 12,137 acres of SHD olive orchards had been planted in the state, with 92 percent of those planted between 2005 and 2008. No official survey has been conducted since, but California Olive Ranch estimates that there are about 22,000 SHD acres in the state today. Before these types of orchards were planted, olive oil production in California rarely exceeded 1,000 tonnes. By the 2014-15 marketing year, California pumped out eight times that much.
This growth is not only due to newly available technology—on the demand side, the market was ripe for quality olive oil. Olive oil started to become popular in the US in the late 1980s and 1990s as praise grew for the Mediterranean diet, found to potentially reduce the risk of numerous ailments, such as cancer, osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. Because there was almost no olive oil production in the United States, virtually all of the supply to meet the growing demand was imported. From 1980 to 2000 (before Californian oil production had taken off), olive oil imports increased from 28,000 tonnes to 212,000 tonnes. By 2015, even with the growth in domestic production, imports hit 315,000 tonnes.
But consumers weren’t always getting what they thought they had paid for. In addition to issues with outright fraud, international quality standards on extra virgin olive oil (EVOO)—i.e. cold-pressed, with no additives and minimal acidity—are not well enforced, and there have been numerous incidences of lower-quality vegetable oil or heat-treated olive oil labeled and sold as “extra virgin.”
A study published in 2010 by the University of California, Davis’s Olive Center found that 69 percent of a selection of imported EVOOs found in California supermarkets (as well as 10 percent of Californian EVOOs) didn’t meet standards set by the world’s largest olive trade group, the International Olive Council (IOC). Critics point out that the 69 percent figure was arrived at via taste tests, rather than chemical ones, and funded by California olive oil producers. Nevertheless, the tasting panels were officially recognized by the IOC, and follow-up chemical tests found that many of the oils still failed to meet some standards. (Check out Gro Intelligence’s Insight on food fraud for more on mislabeled EVOO.) The concerns have even been enough to prompt the United States House of Representatives Committee on Agriculture, to require the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to test imported olive oil on the grounds of health concerns, and then report back to Congress on its findings and plans to ensure fraudulent oil doesn’t reach consumers.
California producers are hoping to provide a solution to the fraud. The state’s olive oil industry has positioned itself as an underdog producer of high-quality, rigorously checked oil in the face of European mega producers with questionable track records and lax certification. Its main trade body, the California Olive Oil Council (COOC) has even set its certification standards stricter than international standards set by the IOC—mandating a maximum of 0.5 free acidity content compared with the IOC’s 0.8 percent.
Now California’s olives are starting to become recognized. In the past three years, US olive oil has come away with the third-highest number of awards behind Spain and Italy at the New York International Olive Oil Competition, the world’s largest and most prestigious competition (most of the entries came from California, but a few came from Texas, which produces a small fraction of what California does). Furthermore, in 2014, the first year of the competition, the only US winner of the Best in Show award (the competition’s highest prize) was a California SHD producer, Enzo Olive Oil.
Traditionalists argue that mechanical super-high-density farming is too crude: Mechanically-harvested olives can’t be as easily checked for quality compared with handpicked olives, and SHD is only compatible with three olive varieties, all dwarfs—Arbequina, Arbosana, and Koroneiki—limiting the spectrum of flavors producers can achieve. That’s not to say these three produce poor quality oils—far from it. Arbequina and Arbosana are well-known, well-appreciated and widely produced Spanish varieties, and Koroneiki is a robust Greek variety that has often been used to spice up poor-quality Spanish and Italian oils. Olive oil is a lot like wine in this regard: Different olives have different profiles that cater to different tastes, and oils (both high- and low-end) are often blended to optimize flavor. Arbequina has a mild, buttery flavor that has a reputation as an everyday olive oil. Arbosana and Koroneiki are much more bitter and robust varieties that might not pair well with all foods. At the 2016 New York International Olive Oil Competition, Arbequina and Koroneiki oils even won the second- and third-highest number of awards, respectively, behind a Spanish variety called Picual, which accounts for more than 25 percent of global olive oil production.
Indeed, the majority of olive oil award winners (from California and elsewhere) produce traditional, artisanal oil, often from handpicked olives. But still, the fact is, SHD orchards are producing award-winning oils, which may help in making high-quality extra virgin olive oils available to a wide spectrum of consumers without the traditional premium price. SHD allows harvest costs to be more than halved compared with handpicked olives. A $6.98 500ml bottle of California Olive Ranch EVOO, if pressed from handpicked olives, would cost over $20.
In April 2016, trade groups from the United States, Australia and Chile came together to create the World Olive Oil Trade Group, an international body made up of “New World” countries rivaling the more Eurocentric International Olive Council. The new trade group aims to create higher standards for olive oil. The group’s vision, the affiliate Australian Olive Association states, is “for a globally competitive and growing market for olive oil, free of fraudulent or mislabeled product, supplied by producers who farm in a manner that is socially responsible and sustainable.” In short, it wants to one-up the IOC.
California producers have also had a recent stroke of luck in taking on European competitors. A bacterial disease known as Olive Quick Decline Syndrome (OQDS) has infected orchards across Southern Europe, shrinking production, and causing widespread tree death. More than 1 million trees have been affected in Italy, and the epidemic is expected to worsen. (Read more about OQDS in another Gro Insight.)
California is entering its fifth consecutive year of drought in 2016, putting a strain on the state’s water usage. According to the state’s latest drought report from mid-April, snowpack was 70 percent its normal level, while water levels were below average in nine of 12 major reservoir and 2,180 wells were identified as critical or dry. Accounting for 80 percent of human water use in California, agriculture is by far the largest user of water in the state, and participants in the sector have naturally been particularly concerned by the drought.
Lawmakers in California are now working to make the state’s water consumption more sustainable. Signed into law in September 2014, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act signified a major shift in the oversight of water resources by transferring responsibility from the state authorities to local actors. The management of groundwater is now broken down into 515 separate locally managed basins, whereby each local agency will manage its own water and California as a whole can avoid a “tragedy of the commons” with everybody using too much water and no one to blame.
Agricultural water users in some of these districts may find it harder to meet their requirements, and super-high-density olive farming may provide a viable answer. Several of California’s major cash crops, such as almonds, grapes, pistachios and walnuts already require similar temperature and sunlight conditions to olives. Mayo Ryan, the Vice President of Agriculture at California Olive Ranch, points out that SHD olives use far less water than these crops. According to Ryan, California Olive Ranch uses about 1.3 acre-feet of water on each acre per year; meanwhile, grape vineyards use about 2.5 acre-feet, almonds about 3.0, and pistachios over 4.0.
If demand for California olive oil keeps rising, farming SHD olives may become an increasingly lucrative opportunity. Almond growers, for example, have received high prices for their crop in the past few years, in part because of higher water costs. In 2012 through 2014, average yearly almond prices were $2.58, $3.21, and $3.19 per pound , respectively, and in some months they topped $4.00 per pound. But the steep prices are beginning to affect demand, which in turn is pushing prices down again.
“Walnuts, pistachios and almonds have been priced great in the past few years, but now the price is dropping,” says Ryan. “With almonds at $2.00 per pound, super-high-density olives are very competitive, especially if water costs are high.” Farmers looking to plant fruit or nut trees are starting to consider olives much more seriously, he says.
And there is certainly room for growth. In 2014, California harvested 870,000 acres of almonds, 865,000 acres of grapes, 290,000 acres of walnuts and 221,000 acres of pistachios. In the same year, only 37,000 acres of olives were harvested. “We’re still on the forefront of this,” says Ryan. “We’re where the wine industry was 40 years ago, where pistachios were 20 years ago. We can look at those industries as case studies and see how they’ve grown.”
If California Olive Ranch itself is any indication, the industry’s growth trajectory is promising. The company’s retail sales have grown more than 40 percent every year for almost a decade, from $280,000 in 2009 to $33 million in 2015. Total company revenue, including foodservice and private-label buyers as well as sales from an Italian brand called Lucini the company bought in 2015, clocked in at about $100 million in 2015. Currently, about 13,000 acres of SHD olives are crushed to make the company’s extra virgin olive oil, and Ryan says he expects that figure to double in the next five years.
The most rigorous taste and chemical tests of olive oils produced in super-high-density orchards support what the pioneers of the technology have long argued: SHD can provide high-quality extra virgin olive oil at a fraction of the usual cost.
And for California, one of the global leaders of SHD production, the opportunity is particularly exciting. Nearly 97 percent of olive oil consumed in the United States is imported, indicating a massive, growing market for the product. Even in the face of California’s persistent water shortages, and in the face of a changing climate which may make these shortages the norm, olives may be a viable and sustainable product for the state. California, which already experienced one gold rush a century and a half ago, may be on the brink of another, “liquid gold” one today.
What Information Do We Collect?
The information we gather enables us to personalize, improve and continue to operate the Services. We collect the following types of information from our users.
IP Address Information and Other Information Collected Automatically:
· We automatically receive and record information from your web browser when you interact with the Services, including your IP address and cookie information. This information is used for fighting spam/malware and also to facilitate collection of data concerning your interaction with the Services (e.g., what links you have clicked on).
· Generally, the Services automatically collect usage information, such as the number and frequency of visitors to the Site. We may use this data in aggregate form, that is, as a statistical measure, but not in a manner that would identify you personally. This type of aggregate data enables us and third parties authorized by us to figure out how often individuals use parts of the Services so that we can analyze and improve them.
Information Collected Using Cookies:
· Most browsers have an option for turning off the cookie feature, which will prevent your browser from accepting new cookies, as well as (depending on the sophistication of your browser software) allowing you to decide on acceptance of each new cookie in a variety of ways.
We collect statistical information about how users collectively use the Services (“Aggregate Information”). Some of this information may be derived from Personal Information. This statistical information is not Personal Information and cannot be tied back to you or your web browser.
How, and With Whom, Is My Information Shared?
IP Address Information:
Information You Elect to Share:
We share Aggregate Information with our partners, service providers and other persons with whom we conduct business. We share this type of statistical data so that our partners can understand how and how often people use our Services and their services or websites, which facilitates improving both their services and how our Services interface with them. In addition, these third parties may share with us non-private, aggregated or otherwise non Personal Information about you that they have independently developed or acquired.
Information Shared with Our Agents:
We employ and contract with people and other entities that perform certain tasks on our behalf and who are under our control (our “Agents”). We may need to share Personal Information with our Agents in order to provide products or services to you. Unless we tell you differently, our Agents do not have any right to use Personal Information or other information we share with them beyond what is necessary to assist us. You hereby consent to our sharing of Personal Information with our Agents.
Information Disclosed Pursuant to Business Transfers:
In some cases, we may choose to buy or sell assets. In these types of transactions, user information is typically one of the transferred business assets. Moreover, if we, or substantially all of our assets, were acquired, or if we go out of business or enter bankruptcy, user information would be one of the assets that is transferred or acquired by a third party. You acknowledge that such transfers may occur, and that any acquirer of us or our assets may continue to use your Personal Information as set forth in this policy.
Information Disclosed for Our Protection and the Protection of Others:
Information We Share With Your Consent:
Except as set forth above, you will be notified when your Personal Information may be shared with third parties, and will be able to prevent the sharing of this information.
Is Information About Me Secure?
We store all of our information, including your IP address information, using industry-standard techniques. We do not guarantee or warrant that such techniques will prevent unauthorized access to information about you that we store, Personal Information or otherwise.
What Information of Mine Can I Access?
You can access and delete cookies through your web browser settings.
California Privacy Rights: Under California Civil Code sections 1798.83-1798.84, California residents are entitled to ask us for a notice identifying the categories of personal customer information which we share with our affiliates and/or third parties for marketing purposes, and providing contact information for such affiliates and/or third parties. If you are a California resident and would like a copy of this notice, please submit a written request to the following address: 1460 Broadway, 12th Floor, New York, NY 10036.
What If I Have Questions or Concerns?
If you have any questions or concerns regarding privacy using the Services, please send us a detailed message to email@example.com. We will make every effort to resolve your concerns.
Effective Date: March 11, 2014
b. You shall not (directly or indirectly):i. take any action that imposes or may impose (as determined by us in our sole discretion) an unreasonable or disproportionately large load on our (or our third party providers’) infrastructure; ii. interfere or attempt to interfere with the proper working of the Services or any activities conducted on the Services; iii. bypass, circumvent or attempt to bypass or circumvent any measures we may use to prevent or restrict access to the Services (or other accounts, computer systems or networks connected to the Services); iv. use manual or automated software, devices, or other processes to “crawl” or “spider” any page of the Site;
v. harvest or scrape any Content from the Services;
vi. otherwise take any action in violation of our guidelines and policies;vii. decipher, decompile, disassemble, reverse engineer or otherwise attempt to derive any source code or underlying ideas or algorithms of any part of the Services (including without limitation any application), except to the limited extent applicable laws specifically prohibit such restriction; viii. modify, translate, or otherwise create derivative works of any part of the Services; or ix. copy, rent, lease, distribute, or otherwise transfer any of the rights that you receive hereunder. c. We also reserve the right to access, read, preserve, and disclose any information as we reasonably believe is necessary to: i. satisfy any applicable law, regulation, legal process or governmental request; ii. enforce these Terms of Service, including investigation of potential violations hereof;
iii. detect, prevent, or otherwise address fraud, security or technical issues;
iv. respond to user support requests; or
v. protect the rights, property or safety of us, our users and the public.4. Third Party Services. The Services may permit you to link to other websites, services or resources on the Internet, and other websites, services or resources may contain links to the Services. When you access third party resources on the Internet, you do so at your own risk. These other resources are not under our control, and you acknowledge that we are not responsible or liable for the content, functions, accuracy, legality, appropriateness or any other aspect of such websites or resources. The inclusion of any such link does not imply our endorsement or any association between us and their operators. You further acknowledge and agree that we shall not be responsible or liable, directly or indirectly, for any damage or loss caused or alleged to be caused by or in connection with the use of or reliance on any such content, goods or services available on or through any such website or resource. 5. Termination. We may terminate your access to all or any part of the Services at any time, with or without cause, with or without notice, effective immediately. All provisions of these Terms of Service which by their nature should survive termination shall survive termination, including, without limitation, ownership provisions, warranty disclaimers, indemnity and limitations of liability. 6. Warranty Disclaimer. a. You release us from all liability for you having acquired or not acquired Content through the Services. We make no representations concerning any Content contained in or accessed through the Services, and we will not be responsible or liable for the accuracy, copyright compliance, or legality of material or Content contained in or accessed through the Services. b. THE SERVICES AND CONTENT ARE PROVIDED “AS IS”, “AS AVAILABLE” AND WITHOUT WARRANTY OF ANY KIND, EXPRESS OR IMPLIED, INCLUDING, BUT NOT LIMITED TO, THE IMPLIED WARRANTIES OF TITLE, NON-INFRINGEMENT, MERCHANTABILITY AND FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE, AND ANY WARRANTIES IMPLIED BY ANY COURSE OF PERFORMANCE OR USAGE OF TRADE, ALL OF WHICH ARE EXPRESSLY DISCLAIMED. WE, AND OUR DIRECTORS, EMPLOYEES, AGENTS, SUPPLIERS, PARTNERS AND CONTENT PROVIDERS DO NOT WARRANT THAT: (I) THE SERVICES WILL BE SECURE OR AVAILABLE AT ANY PARTICULAR TIME OR LOCATION; (II) ANY DEFECTS OR ERRORS WILL BE CORRECTED; (III) ANY CONTENT AVAILABLE AT OR THROUGH THE SERVICES IS FREE OF VIRUSES OR OTHER HARMFUL COMPONENTS; OR (IV) THE RESULTS OF USING THE SERVICES WILL MEET YOUR REQUIREMENTS. 7. Limitation of Liability. IN NO EVENT SHALL WE, NOR OUR DIRECTORS, EMPLOYEES, AGENTS, PARTNERS, SUPPLIERS OR CONTENT PROVIDERS, BE LIABLE UNDER CONTRACT, TORT, STRICT LIABILITY, NEGLIGENCE OR ANY OTHER LEGAL OR EQUITABLE THEORY WITH RESPECT TO THE SERVICES FOR ANY (I) LOST PROFITS, DATA LOSS, COST OF PROCUREMENT OF SUBSTITUTE GOODS OR SERVICES, OR SPECIAL, INDIRECT, INCIDENTAL, PUNITIVE, COMPENSATORY OR CONSEQUENTIAL DAMAGES OF ANY KIND WHATSOEVER, SUBSTITUTE GOODS OR SERVICES (HOWEVER ARISING), (II) BUGS, VIRUSES, TROJAN HORSES, OR THE LIKE (REGARDLESS OF THE SOURCE OF ORIGINATION), OR (III) DIRECT DAMAGES IN EXCESS OF $50.00. 8. Governing Law and Jurisdiction. These Terms of Service shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of the State of New York, including its conflicts of law rules, and the United States of America. You agree that any dispute arising from or relating to the subject matter of these Terms of Service shall be governed by the exclusive jurisdiction and venue of the state and Federal courts of New York County, New York. 9. Miscellaneous. a. Modification. We reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to modify or replace any of these Terms of Service, or change, suspend, or discontinue the Services at any time. Your continued use of the Services following notification of any changes to these Terms of Service constitutes acceptance of those changes. b. Entire Agreement and Severability. These Terms of Service are the entire agreement between you and us with respect to the Services, including use of the Site, and supersede all prior or contemporaneous communications and proposals (whether oral, written or electronic) between you and us with respect to the Services. If any provision of these Terms of Service is found to be unenforceable or invalid, that provision will be limited or eliminated to the minimum extent necessary so that these Terms of Service will otherwise remain in full force and effect and enforceable. The failure of either party to exercise in any respect any right provided for herein shall not be deemed a waiver of any further rights hereunder c. Force Majeure. We shall not be liable for any failure to perform our obligations hereunder where such failure results from any cause beyond our reasonable control, including, without limitation, mechanical, electronic or communications failure or degradation. d. Assignment. These Terms of Service are personal to you, and are not assignable, transferable or sublicensable by you except with our prior written consent. We may assign, transfer or delegate any of our rights and obligations hereunder without consent. e. Agency. No agency, partnership, joint venture, or employment relationship is created as a result of these Terms of Service and neither party has any authority of any kind to bind the other in any respect. f. Notices. Unless otherwise specified in these Term of Service, all notices under these Terms of Service will be in writing and will be deemed to have been duly given when received, if personally delivered or sent by certified or registered mail, return receipt requested; when receipt is electronically confirmed, if transmitted by facsimile or e-mail; or the day after it is sent, if sent for next day delivery by recognized overnight delivery service. Electronic notices should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org g. No Waiver. Our failure to enforce any part of these Terms of Service shall not constitute a waiver of our right to later enforce that or any other part of these Terms of Service. Waiver of compliance in any particular instance does not mean that we will waive compliance in the future. In order for any waiver of compliance with these Terms of Service to be binding, we must provide you with written notice of such waiver through one of our authorized representatives. h. Headings. The section and paragraph headings in these Terms of Service are for convenience only and shall not affect their interpretation. Contact. You may contact us at the following address: 1460 Broadway, 12th Floor, New York, NY 10036.