California is the only important olive-growing state in the U.S., with Tulare County as its leading producer. Production statewide remains fairly stable at around 40,000 acres planted for extra virgin oil, with one of those growers being the current president of the California Farm Bureau Federation.
Jamie Johansson runs Lodestar Farms in Oroville, which bills itself as the oldest family olive oil farm in the Sacramento Valley that has grown from an initial 20 acres in 1993 to 80 current acres. By definition, a lode star is one that leads or shows the way. It’s taken awhile to earn that accolade.
Oroville has the distinction of over 120 years of farming quality extra virgin olive oil --- it’s called the birthplace of commercial California olive production --- noted for its distinct flavor.
“I was a bit naïve some 25 years ago, but I quickly learned that you couldn’t make a go of it by just having a small amount of acreage selling to a processor,” Johansson said as a former behind-the-scenes farmer providing olives and olive oil for 10 other companies. “This was in the 1990s when imports were really starting to impact price and contracts were getting cancelled.”
Johansson has a diverse background in agriculture, enjoying his time chasing cows and repairing fences, but as the olive oil industry started to grow, he jumped on that bandwagon with the idea.
“You gotta focus on what will make you money,” he said.
At that time, a gallon jug of European import went for $15 while locally-produced product marketed out at $75 a gallon.
“We couldn’t meet the price point for bulk sales, so we focused on reaching people who were looking for higher quality and willing to pay a premium for it,” he said. “It took a while, but consumers finally learned that fresh extra virgin oil tasted better than what they were used to in terms of lower grades then coming from Europe.”
His company web page makes reference to all that changing.
“Since 1993, Lodestar has led the California olive oil industry in perfecting the cultivation, harvesting, and delivering of the best olive oil the state has to offer,” the site reads.
Lodestar has provided olives for 15 award-winning oils including a Best of Show at the Oils of the World Competition.
GROWING ISN’T EASY
Like anything else that qualifies as agriculture, growing olives isn’t a slam dunk. “2018 was a tough year because of weather conditions, primarily late freezes up and down the Valley that produced some bark splitting along with lots of strong winds in the spring,” Johansson said. “So a 2019 harvest that’s expected to produce about 4 million gallons is welcomed news.”
Lodestar plants high density, which translates to more plants per acre.
“We plant about 50-60 trees per acre and some of our older trees are 100 years old, but we produce more than enough to sell to other companies plus under our own label,” he said.
“We harvest late in the season, December or January, when olives are fully ripe and pungent, a combination that results in a very regional style of olive oil.”
Johansson’s farm is all hand-harvested, so trained labor is always a concern. “Grape and strawberry pickers don’t necessarily know how to pick olives,” he said. “That’s a specialized talent and getting trained pickers to return year after year becomes important because you have about a 2-3 week window with optimal fruit coloring.”
A focus on pest management centers around the fruit fly and water management is typical of other fruit trees. “We need about 3-4 feet of water and trees won’t die without it, but if they don’t get enough, the flavor changes.”
Putting all your eggs in one basket can be dangerous, so Lodestar diversifies by growing citrus, like Meyer lemons. “We combine our efforts and produce flavored oils, like a lemon olive oil or a blood orange olive oil,” he said. “Expansion is always a capital intensive process, so we’re planting our own citrus trees instead of buying fruit. We sell it as fresh fruit and what doesn’t sell, we use for our flavored oils.”
According to the California Olive Oil Council , now in its 28th year and representing a majority of the 400 olive oil growers and producers, retailers, and the four dozen mills in the state, “an estimated 15,000 new acres of olive trees will be planted by the end of 2020.”
Quoting COOC’s Wendy Winters: “California produces more than 75 olive varieties (out of the 187 varietals available) accounting for 99 percent of U.S. domestic olive oil production.”
Historically, while olives have been cultivated around the Mediterranean Sea for at least 5,000 years, “they were first brought to California in the 18th century by Spanish padres and were planted at all coastal missions south of San Francisco,” according to a University of California Davis report on olive production.
Early commercial plantings were of the ‘Mission’ cultivar while other cultivars (Manzanillo and Sevillano) were brought to California in the early 1900s. The Manzanillo, which can be used for both oil production and as a table olive oil, has been the most popular variety since the 1960s.
The basic procedure for making olive oil has remained the same for thousands of years --- harvest the olives at the right time, crush them into paste, separate the solids from the liquid, then further separate the water from the oil.