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

?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.

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