The United States is the second largest importer of Olive Oil. In 2019 its purchases reached 350 thousand tons, which was only surpassed by Italy, which constitutes 95% of the internal consumption, which is on average 1kg/person/year. Therefore, it can be considered the number one importing country, but not producer.

Internally, the State of California, which has an area of 17 thousand hectares, produces 15 thousand tons of Extra Virgin Olive Oil. The regions where most of the North American cultivation is concentrated is in the Sacramento Valley and San Agustin.

The olive trees were brought to this area by Father Junipero Serra, who in 1769 founded the Mission of San Diego de Alcalá and planted several trees of the variety known from that moment n as Mission, originated by vegetative propagation of the best trees from an original mix of seeds. Later, other Mediterranean varieties were planted such as Manzanilla, Ascolana and Sevillana.

Olive tree in the San Antonio de Padua Mission (1771), founded by Fray Junípero Serra in Alta California. Photo:  Gianfranco Vargas.

From this event the development of olive growing and olive oil activity in the region and country start to take place. In 1870 the first plant for the production of olive oil was installed in Ventura Country in the «Rancho Cámulos», north of Los Angeles. Later, at the beginning of 1900, the industry was oriented towards table olives, which dominated the olive tree scene for more than three quarters of a century.

Nowadays, both industries coexist, in the modality of intensive and super-intensive plantations that are the most common.

One of the largest areas of intensive cultivation is located in the Napa Valley. In the town of Santa Helena (between Sacramento and San Francisco), numerous traditional olive groves cover the landscape of this region, which is well known for its vineyards.

Historically, besides Mission, the Italian varieties Frantoio, Maurino, Pendolino, Taggiasca, Leccino, Coratina predominate, since the Italian immigrants brought their olive trees here when they arrived. There are also monumental olive trees of Spanish varieties such as Gordal, Sevillana and Manzanilla (both for table olives and oil). There is also Aglandeau from France, the Israeli Barnea and Picholine Marocaine.

Due to market demands, priority is given to organic and ecological cultivation, without chemical treatments that combat pests such as the olive fly, which is the main problem affecting Californian olive groves, and is favored by the high temperatures in the area. Also, there is incidence of tuberculosis, which has made cleaning and pruning trees ever important. Xylella fastidiosa, which is found in fruit trees, especially citrus trees in the north and center of the continent, has not affected the olive tree.

The harvesting time is determined by a combination of parameters such as maturity index, fruit retention strength, sugar and fat content in dry matter. This strategy is leading to obtaining oils with high content of oleic acid and polyphenols, and low indexes of peroxides. The experience in this region has allowed them to figure out when the optimal moments of harvest for each one of the cultivated varieties occur.

The environmental conditions of the area, high temperatures (38°C) and scarcity of water are factors of great incidence in the planning of the harvest that is usually done in the late afternoon and night. The olives are packed in 500 kg boxes that are sent to the oil mills in refrigerated trucks (5°C) to keep them in good thermal conditions to be processed without altering the quality of the oil (25°C).

For the harvest, we use teams of people with experience in the task, which is totally manual. We take care of the quality of the fruit and processing (blade mills, vertical beating for short periods) to satisfy the taste of the consumer and technical parameters required by the regulatory agencies of California and USA. Yields are between 13.5% with Frantoio and Leccino and 20% with Arbequina.

Extra Virgin quality oils have a very select niche in this area, as do the wines. One can pay between US$ 35 and 80 for a 500 ml bottle. This exclusive market has sales levels that can reach 7500 liters, for medium and robust fruity organic oils, although this last category is in less demand because the public is not yet used to consuming them.

Super-intensive olive groves are located in the North of the state and two of the main companies dedicated to this area are California Olive Oil Ranch (COOR) and Boundary Bend in the towns of Corning and Woodland (Yolo Country).

This form of cultivation began in California in 1980 with Spanish families. COOR began in 1998 when 200 hectares were planted in Oroville. Currently, it is estimated that in the entire state the extension of super intensive olive groves is 10 thousand hectares and this company is the most important one in the United States, both in terms of production and commercialization.

It is located in an area of high temperatures and scarce rainfall, so irrigation is vital to develop the crop; the state strictly regulates the use of water resources because of its importance for olive growing (1.9-2.5 m3/ha/year) and other agricultural activities. 80% of the Californian olive groves are irrigated, with technification to control volumes and schedules of use.

The varieties planted are Arbequina, Arbosana and Koroneiki, which due to the vegetative characteristics of each one of them require large scale sanitary and pruning work. The main disease affecting super-intensive olive groves is tuberculosis, which is controlled with post-harvest fungicides, and cleaning of machinery and pruning to avoid mechanical propagation.

The other challenge to be faced is the marked alternation that leads to variations in the production between 10-20 ton/ha of fruit, which makes the management of both fertilization and pruning a priority. Likewise, the vegetative differences of each variety make it necessary to work in a specific way, although the high density of plants (1500/ha) complicates the selective management, becoming another problem to be solved.

From 2010, the «second wave» of super-intensive groves began, changing the planting frames from 1500-1600 plants/ha to 2000 plants/ha, for the less vigorous varieties. The dimensions of the trees have also been modified to reduce shading. It has been lowered to 2m high and 1.5m wide. This totally mechanized pruning has led to a decrease in fruit production to 12 tons/ha, but has lowerd alternation. The variety Koroneiki is very controlled in terms of its growth in order to avoid growing too tall.

New varieties such as Lecciana and Xiquitita are being tested, but results are not yet available to compare vegetative behavior and yield.

We are also innovating by planting various plant species in a row that return nutrients to the soil, resorting to organic farming, processing the remains from pruning and reincorporating them into the soil.

There is a difference in the varietal composition of super-intensive crops. 60% of the planted area is Arbequina, which produces oils that are not very robust, with a low concentration of oleic acid and polyphenols. This has led the company to import monovarietal oils from Argentina, Chile, Peru and Portugal to produce different «blends» to satisfy consumer tastes.

Another major company, Boundary Bend, established in 2015, continues the expansion of high density farming in the Sacramento Valley. Based on their experience in Australia, which is done under similar climatic conditions, they began a detailed analysis of the climatic and soil conditions in 20 locations in the county. Mild winters and very dry summers, plus frequent frosts at flowering time and before harvest are the most notable features of the climate.

In addition to the typical varieties of the high density olive grove, this company is testing in nurseries other well known varieties in Europe and Africa: Chemlali, Picual, Coratina that have been successful in their countries of origin.

The slogan of the Californian olive growing is the quality of fruit and oil, the improvement and sustainability of the growing conditions, and the expansion of the activity.

The California Olive Oil Council (COOC) is the institution that controls and regulates the activity, from the cultivation, industrialization, production quality and sale. The average yield currently varies between 1.7 and 2.5 tons of oil/hectare, encouraging cooperation and research to increase to 3 tons/hectare.

The quality is promoted by offering services of panel of tasting of olive oil recognized by the International Olive Oil Council, a laboratory of physical-chemical analysis, as much of the own components of the product as presence of rest of agrochemicals and quality control of the seedlings in nurseries and conditions of all the process. «High quality oils are obtained if there is production of excellent fruit.” This is the strategy that is promoted at the state and country level to encourage the consumption of the product.

State (COOC), federal (CDFA), international (COI), and commercial (Kosher) regulations apply. This facilitates the circulation of Californian oil as a recognized quality brand, environmentally friendly and free of contaminants. Boundary Bend, which has plantations in countries in both hemispheres, can freely transit and commercialize oils between its subsidiaries throughout the year and dispose of freshly produced oil under the same regulations.

The COVID-19 pandemic is hitting the country hard, leading to a pronounced change in consumption conditions and levels. Commercialization is being centralized in the large sales and distribution chains, due to the fact that the restaurant and hotel channels are almost paralyzed at the moment. U.S. consumers have switched to making food at home, and adopting healthier habits.

In terms of commercialization, sales of 3 and 5 liter containers have decreased, and bottles of up to one liter have increased, which should have been foreseen in the logistics of the companies. Sales volumes have increased between three and four times (both directly and through the Internet). The local production cannot satisfy this increase of the national and international demand of the company, so increasing the planted surface area of other producers is highly encouraged. This must be done without losing the quality, because of the great potential to take the Californian oil to other parts of the world. The brand «Oil from California» has great prestige for the high standards of production and demand of the COOC.

The classic Californian oil, with a medium fruity, bitter and spicy profile, is slowly starting to change along with consumer education. Therefore, companies are offering new, more intense, varietal combinations. We must not forget that 30 years ago the predominant fat in the United States was butter.

SOURCES: Milagros CASTRO (Milagros Olive Advisor), Lizandro MAGANA (California Olive OilRanch), Ciriaco CHAVEZ (Boundary Bend, California Olive Oil Council)