Serra Brand California Colossal Ripe Olives label, 1936
Serra Brand California Colossal Ripe Olives label, 1936

By Mike McCoy, Executive Director, Kern County Museum

Mike McCoy

The humble olive has been celebrated since the beginning of recorded time as the most useful of all crops; its oil can flavor and cook food, it can provide light in lamps, the olive has wonderful fruit and the wood can be burned to keep a humble house warm at night. It was first brought to California by the Spanish missionaries who planted olive orchards at all of the coastal missions down to Baja. The warm Mediterranean climate and rich soil was a natural for propagation of the olive.

 Some areas like the small community of Lindsay and rural Glenn County focused on the olive crop and developed superior varieties for black and green olives. Olive orchards have now been popping up along the central coast of California and there are fully mechanized orchards in the San Joaquin Valley. With the trend toward healthier eating and olive oil as a positive alternative to other processed oils, there appears to be a slight growth curve for production.

A bottle of Picual Organic Rio Bravo Ranch Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Olives have never been a large commercial crop in Kern County. Countries like Turkey, Greece, Italy and Spain have literally millions of acres of olives in active production. They also have an olive tradition that goes back thousands of years. South American and California olive producers have never been able to effectively compete with the scale of the production in Europe and North Africa. The European crop, though, has been hit with fungus problems in recent years that have down sized production. There were also problems with weather in Italy and ongoing trade tariffs that have affected imports. California growers have taken note of the problems and have seen a possible opportunity.

California is now actively experimenting with more than 75 different varieties for oil and fruit. Kern County, with its one million acres of agricultural crops, currently has less than 500 planted in olives. However, there are advocates like the Rio Bravo Ranch. It was a surprise to see olive orchards at the mouth of the Kern River canyon where there used to be citrus. While the local operation is still described as a “boutique crop,” Rio Bravo has received awards for its oil.

There was another speed bump with the appearance of the olive fruit fly in Southern California. Olives are notorious for their susceptibility to pests. The plum borer, gray olive scales, and root weevils join the fruit fly as enemies of the olive and require immediate attention from growers. European farmers have dealt with these pests for centuries, but modern farming methods lean toward the organic in California. This limits the weapons available to the grower.

Wells Fargo & Co. Express banner promoting California Ripe Olive Day, 1916

Meanwhile, the Nickel family of Kern County think they are on the forefront of the next big thing in San Joaquin agriculture. Their Rio Bravo Ranch has been working with seven different varieties of olives that yield oils that range from very light to very hearty. And their olive oil has been receiving awards and notice. At a recent visit to the famous Farmer’s Market in downtown L.A.’s Fairfax District, a spice vendor had a nice display of Rio Bravo Ranch olive oil. “This is the good stuff,” he explained. We, being proud of our local achievements, nodded in agreement.

Thank you to the Kern County Farm Bureau for information.

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