Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Oilve oil...a contrived product?

Is this a demand created by marketing by the likes of popular television chefs? Whats wrong with corn oil, soybean oil, palm oil, peanut oil or just ole bacon fat? And, what's with the "extra virgin"?

"Planting technique greases the wheels of olive oil production"


Elizabeth Weise

July 6th, 2010


The USA is the world's third-largest consumer of olive oil, but a paltry 1% of the silky liquid so beloved by Rachael Ray and a host of chefs is produced here. An entrepreneurial band of olive ranchers wants to change that — using what some in the industry term an "outlandish" growing method borrowed from Spain.

The planting technique, called super-high-density planting, or SHD, means that this year, the United States is set to surpass France in the production of extra virgin olive oil, says Patricia Darragh of the California Olive Oil Council in Berkeley, Calif. The upset comes because the new method of growing the prized fruit is sweeping California's olive orchards, lowering costs and leading farmers who have grown wheat, corn and alfalfa to instead plant olives.

"It's the quintessential example of a disruptive technology," says Adam Englehardt of California Olive Ranch, which planted the first super-high-density orchard in the USA in 1999.

Still labor-intensive

Traditionally, olives required hand harvesting, though the romantic image of gangs of workers heading out to the orchards with ladders to pick the crop is mostly long gone. Today, even low-tech harvesting is done with tarps on the ground while laborers beat the trees with sticks or, more often, mechanical harvesters that shake the branches, says Bob Bauer, president of the North American Olive Oil Association in Neptune, N.J.

But even those techniques have made American olive oil too expensive to compete with oil from countries where either production is heavily subsidized, such as the European Union, or there is ready access to cheap labor, says Dan Flynn, director of the University of California-Davis Olive Center. Some mechanization has come to harvest, but it was still labor intensive.

Spain, Italy, Turkey and Morocco account for the lion's share of production, according to the International Olive Council.

But a growing technique first developed in Spain in the early 1990s may change that. Historically, olives have been grown at about 70 to 100 trees per acre. But at a recent conference coordinated by the Davis Olive Center, more than 100 growers from across California gathered to learn about SHD production. It involves planting olives in tightly packed rows, on average 670 an acre, on trellis systems much like grapes, Flynn says. As the trees grow, they're pruned and trimmed so the row forms one long, continuous bush or hedgerow. When the olives are ripe, rolling machines, called over-the-row harvesters, envelop the hedgerow, beating the fruit off with inch-thick rods. "It's kind of like beating the trees with a baseball bat about 60 times a second," says Matt Lohse of Carriere Family Farms in Glenn, Calif.

The SHD trees produce less than traditional ones, but with more trees per acre, the yield is about the same, he says. The SHD trees also begin producing within three years, compared with five to 10 years for traditionally grown olive trees. And they're cheaper.

"For me to handpick, it's $500 a ton. Now I've got a $40,000 harvesting machine that makes it $50 per ton. It allows me to compete," Englehardt says.

That price shift could allow the United States to become a player in what historically has been a Mediterranean commodity — especially here at home. Almost all the new type of orchards are in California, though there are a few growers experimenting with it in Texas, Arizona and Georgia.

Mechanization also allows the olives to be pressed and the oil bottled quickly — the key to high-quality olive oil, says Darragh. "Olive oil is effectively a fruit juice, and you don't want it older than two years."

An alternative to other crops

Today there are about 200,000 acres of super-high-density olive orchards, sometimes called hedgerow planting, worldwide, says Davis' Flynn. Half of those are in Spain. But Portugal, Argentina, Australia, Chile, Morocco and Tunisia also are switching to this kind of planting. There were about 17,000 acres of SHD olives in California as of 2009, where they make up about two-thirds of olive orchards for oil, he says.

The technique also makes olives a viable alternative to other, more water-hungry crops, says Samuel Nevis, president of Butte Basin Management Co. in Marysville, Calif., which manages farms and ranches in California. "We've converted alfalfa, corn and wheat to olives," he says.

Spain, which invented the technique, is paying attention. Lluis Perez-Grau of the Institute for Food and Agricultural Research and Technology in Spain says he attended the conference to see what American farmers are doing with the technique.

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