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Olive farming begins to grow

Small local growers bring their harvest to McEvoy Ranch for community milling days

Published: Tuesday, December 1, 2009 at 1:30 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, December 1, 2009 at 1:30 p.m.

After three years of nurturing a new olive grove on her San Rafael property, Bobbi Cohen pulled her BMW into Petaluma’s McEvoy Ranch with the fruits of her labor — a layer of green and purple grapes that barely covered the bottom of a white plastic bin.

“I know. It’s pathetic,” she said, eyes traveling to the bulging baskets of the person in line ahead of her. “I almost didn’t come, but my husband said, ‘Bobbi, you’ve waited all year for this. You’ve got to go.’”

At the scales, Cohen got the final tally — 3 pounds of fruit that would yield, at most, 5 ounces of oil she will save for special occasions — but she still went home smiling.

“My goal? Some day I’ll have 6 pounds!”

Cohen joined more than 40 small growers on Nov. 15 who brought their olives to be processed as part of McEvoy’s annual community milling days. (A second milling day is planned for Dec. 6. For details, call 778-2307 or visit www.mcevoyranch.com/html/oil_mill.html.) With yields too small for custom milling, their fruit was pooled together for processing. Each will get a share of the finished product.

Although it has little chance of overtaking grapes as an agricultural powerhouse, experts say olive farming has just begun to grow.

In 2008, olives were planted on 379 acres in Sonoma County, producing a crop valued at $181,300. Compared with wine grapes ($381.1 million from 55,431 acres) and vegetables ($9.06 million from 543 acres), the yield seems miniscule.

But seen through the eyes of consumers who are hungry for fresh, healthy, locally produced foods, the potential seems almost unlimited.

Americans consume more than 6 million gallons of olive oil each year, 99 percent of which is imported from Mediterranean countries, and their appetite is growing. With similar weather patterns, California is suited for growing olives, a crop that is often raised alongside vineyards.

Wine grapes and olives arrived in Sonoma in the 1600s with the Spanish missionaries, but grapes get most of the attention because vineyards are highly visible. Olive trees tend to disappear into the valley’s oak, eucalyptus, madrone and manzanita forests.

Cool coastal breezes keep Petaluma’s groves from producing as much fruit as those in the hot Central Valley, but add to its distinctive taste, according to Petaluma-based olive oil consultant Alexandra Kicenik Devarenne.

“Fabulous olive oil is being produced all over the state, but the cooler temperatures along the coast contribute to extraordinary complexity in the fruit flavors,” she said. Like many kinds of grapes, olive trees produce better fruit if they’re slightly stressed.

Paul Vossen is an ambassador for olive growers in Sonoma and Marin counties, serving as farm advisor for the University of California. Few farmers make their entire living off olive crops, Vossen said, and “olives won’t overtake wine grapes or dairy farming, but there’s room for lots more small-scale growers.”

It’s a niche market for people willing to pay a little more for fancy wines and organic salad mixes they can dress with local olive oil, he said. Pulling from Sonoma and Marin counties, Petaluma growers have access to 700,000 people with an appetite for fresh, local products.

On the farming end of the equation, olive trees can grow in horrendous soil, on steep hillsides, with little water and in spots otherwise not suited for other crops.

“The main thing is that anyone can grow them, and it’s kind of fun,” Vossen said.

Teela and Mike Ridgeway of Ridgeway Family Vineyards have grapevines on 10 acres and olives on another 10. Last weekend they harvested more than 1,500 pounds of fruit that will yield about 30 gallons of olive oil.

Teela saves 10 gallons, sells the rest to friends and siblings and has no delusions about getting rich on the proceeds. “It has cost us money every year so far,” she said, but there is at least one benefit to raising olives alongside wine grapes. “After the harvest, you have to wait two years for wine to mature in the bottle, but you get the olive oil two days later.”

(Contact Linda Castrone at argus@arguscourier.com)

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