When you think of “olive oil,” what geographic area comes to mind? Italy, Spain, Greece, Portugal…or California? Most Americans would think of one of these four European countries because they produce 93% of the world’s olive oil. You may find it surprising that while the golden state produces only a tiny percentage of olive oil for the US market, it produces 99% of all Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) made in the USA.“California is the dominant player in the EVOO market due to the favorable Mediterranean climate and terroir that favors grapes as well as olives, and olive growers who are committed to producing the highest quality product using the latest equipment and technologies,” said Patricia Darragh, executive director of the California Olive Oil Council (COOC). The Monterey Bay Farmers Market is pleased to have two such EVOO growers and producers participating at the markets: Chris Banthien of Valencia Creek Farms and Marguerite Remde of Belle Farms.
EVOO is enjoying a healthy upsurge in demand in California and the US. According to the California Olive Oil Council the market for extra virgin olive oil is growing an average of 20% per year, fueled by increasing awareness of the health benefits of fresh, high quality olive oil. Research has determined that the fresher the olive oil, the greater the health benefits. According to the COOC, they recommend opening the olive oil within 12-18 months of it being bottled, and to use it within six months of opening. All olive oils begin losing freshness the moment the olive is harvested, so the shortest time between harvesting, pressing and bottling results in the best tasting oil with the greatest health benefits.
California growers are stepping up to meet the demand. According to the US Department of Agriculture’s Statistics Service (NASS), total acreage of planted olives in California reached 40,000 acres in 2014, down slightly from its peak of 42,000 acres in 2012. Yields have fluctuated between 1.72 and 5.7 tons per acre. Since an olive tree bears fruit on alternating years, climate, rainfall and “Mother Nature” have a strong influence on production. In 2014, of the 82,000 tons of olives harvested in California, 45,000 tons were crushed to produce olive oil.
Olive Growing History in Santa Cruz County
Older Santa Cruz natives may remember that in the 1930s and 40s, Santa Cruz had a small olive oil industry in the De Laveaga area that was operated by Italian-Americans. During the 1940s, the Dominican Sisters at the San Jose Mission in Fremont produced EVOO. The olive oil was for consumption, but during World War II, they also sent oil to Texas and Hawaii to anoint the sick and dying. The decline of olive oil production in this area could be due to the Americanization of second generation immigrants, and the advent of processed fats like Crisco and margarine which became the rage in kitchens across America in the 1950s. Today there are now four commercial grower and producers of EVOO in Santa Cruz County.
Our Local Growers — Valencia Creek Farm and Belle Farms
Both of “Our Ladies of Olive Oil” produce their oils from Tuscan trees, their olive oils have their own very distinctive characteristics based on a number of factors including the environment of the orchard: climate, location and soil, the blend of varieties, and how ripe the fruit is when harvested.
Colline di Santa Cruz by Valencia Creek Farm is produced from a blend of Maurino, Leccino, Pendolino, Frantoio and Taggiasca olive varieties. Chris describes her oil as “fragrant, fruity and pungent. Balanced and delicate with a spicy finish, it reflects Italian varietals grown in our unique microclimate.”
Belle Farms extra virgin olive oil is produced from a harvest blend of five traditional Tuscan olive varieties including Frantoio, Leccino, Pendolino, Maurino and Moraiolo. “This combination of olives produces a distinct and well-balanced olive oil with a slightly peppery finish,” says Marguerite.
New Standards for EVOO
The majority of olive oil producing countries outside the US follows the regulations of the International Olive Oil Council (IOOC) for defining and labeling olive oil. In order to be labeled “extra virgin,” olive oil must meet certain laboratory criteria for oleic acid content, flavor and aroma criteria. Unfortunately, the IOOC standards for extra virgin olive oil are not enforced in the US, so the market is flooded with mislabeled and adulterated oil. The good news is that as a result of the efforts of the US based COOC, the USDA established standards for EVOO that took effect in October 2010. These new standards provide the information consumers need to make an informed choice.
Since 1992, olive oil growers in California have been able to have their oil certified as EVOO by the COOC. Certification is based on the submission of a lab analysis that verifies that the oil is EVOO and a taste test conducted by a COOC panel.
More and more farmers market customers are discovering the rich flavor and benefits of premium, local Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Be sure to visit Chris and Marguerite at the farmers markets and enjoy a taste of their outstanding oil.