Shawn's Blog | The Olive Oil Source Wholesale Store

Shawn's Blog

It's That Time!

Harvest is upon us and since we have been in this business, I’ve never been so happy to have it happen.  I don’t think our inventory has ever been this low at this time of year so we desperately need to get oil coming in. The size of the crop is quite large in our area and that is wonderful news. While we have seen the harvest move forward 2 – 3 days at a very steady rate over the last 10 years or so, this year’s looks like it is going to be a little bit earlier than what used to be the norm, but not a lot.


While I don’t have a lot to say about the upcoming harvest other than, “Finally!”, I wanted to bring attention to a few odds and ends for smaller non-super high density producers. We’ve made our check list available so I encourage you to take a look at it as it is pretty thorough and it is time to think about the things on it.


One thing not addressed in it that I have noticed is a lot of crews are beating trees with sticks to harvest small orchards. I think there are numerous warnings about doing this in just about any documentation on harvesting as it is tough on the fruit and will lead to higher acidity levels in your oil. Equally important however, is the damage it does to your trees. It is very hard both on the foliage and on the framework of the tree and I strongly urge avoiding it if possible. In addition to the abuse it inflicts at the time it is done, it can also leave open wounds on the tree that are an entry point for disease that will cause problems further down the line. In commercial production, one is always up against the constraints of keeping costs low, getting harvesters motivated to pick and so on, but in the case of the small producer where profit margin may not be as important, I encourage you to avoid it if at all possible. While The Olive Oil Source does sell various hand held harvesters, there are plenty available elsewhere too and I encourage you to consider any version over sticks.


One other random bit that I often see is people getting really worried about leaves and sticks in with their fruit. One should try to avoid having too much debris with their fruit but there is a very distinct cost benefit relationship as to how much time you should spend removing leaves and sticks yourself. Any halfway decent mill is going to be capable of removing them, the question is how much you want to pay for it. The leaves and sticks will get weighed with your fruit and included in your tonnage price for milling. That being said, if there are 50 lbs. of leaves/ton, which is a lot, it is going to cost you on the order of $10.00 to have it removed. It all depends on how much you value your time. 


One last thing to keep in mind for your own wellbeing is that you should have informed expectations with regard to how much oil you are going to get. I would say 95% of the fruit that we mill yields between 35 and 50 gallons of oil a ton. Yes, in almost 20 years of doing this, I’ve seen as little as 9 gallons and as much as 70, but realistically, it is going to be between 35 and 50. Know what a ton is so that your expectations aren’t thrown out of whack by overestimating how much fruit you have. 
We once had a customer roll in with eight quarter ton bins of fruit and eight fifty five gallon drums. They thought each bin was a ton and had read to expect in excess of 50 gallons a ton. They were crestfallen (and kind of irritable) when we said they didn’t have enough fruit to produce enough oil to fill two barrels. Unfortunately, this happens a lot. As our mill manager likes to say, “We run a mill, not a church. We make oil, not miracles”.


Other than that, best of luck and I hope you all have a fabulous harvest.

 


October 6, 2019

What goes around…

Last October I wrote about the tariffs being imposed on glass and a multitude of other products and how those tariffs were assessed and paid. I presented them as evil terrible things. Ironically, yet another round of tariffs is being proposed that this time will be levied against imported olive oil. This is a huge boon to The Olive Oil Source as we have always focused on selling Californian olive oil. Now those lower priced imports we have had so much trouble competing against are going to get more expensive, possibly a lot more expensive. Does that make me a supporter of tariffs? Not at all and here are some reasons why.

The most fundamental reason is that I believe very strongly in conservative economic policy and tariffs are anathema to that. Contrary to President Trump’s claim on 5/5/19 that, “For 10 months China has been paying tariffs to the U.S.” (Reuters), the exporting country doesn’t pay the tariffs, the consumer does. Then there was his claim on 5/13, “If you look at the first quarter (referring to G.D.P.)…we were at 3.2% (growth)…. Well, a lot of that was the tariffs that we were taking in from China” (Factcheck.org). Once again, Americans pay the tariffs and taxes don’t get counted in G.D.P. While these new olive oil tariffs will not be levied against China, they will be implemented in exactly the same way and it is nothing more than a hidden tax on the end user.

In addition to increasing taxes on consumers, tariffs beget tariffs. Despite numerous claims over the last three years about how trade wars are easy to win, this would be the first time. Trade wars tend to just drag on and on with each country introducing retaliatory tariffs that just build upon each other. We are seeing it now with China and the E.U. is sure to follow suit. In addition to my strong belief in the virtues of conservative economic policy, there are more down to earth concerns about this too.

We are trying to build an olive oil industry in California and for that matter across the U.S. If our domestic producers are competing against artificially inflated prices due to tariffs, there is no economic incentive to be globally competitive and we will never develop the efficiencies required to compete throughout the world. One of our biggest problems in achieving the needed efficiencies is the high cost of labor and farming in general in the U.S. relative to the rest of the world. Our domestic industry needs to be forced to create efficiencies in tandem with an exemplary track record for quality and honesty in labeling if we are going to make it. For this reason, we need a competitive free market, something conservative economists and politicians have been working to develop and sustain for decades and in direct contradiction with tariffs.


July 14, 2019

Crop Update

It has been awhile since I have posted anything as we have been in the period where we are mainly waiting to see how the crop is developing. This time is always a bit stressful and this year did not let us down. Just as we started to have bud break, there were several rain storms predicted but fortunately none of them amounted to much.


The time was not spent sitting idly however. A lot of labor is used for weed control and irrigation maintenance at this time of year. We are certified organic so you won’t find Roundup or similar products in use here. Instead you will see a lot of labor spent mowing and weed whipping. It is also the time of year when the entire irrigation system has to be reviewed and all the damage that has occurred over the winter gets repaired. Wildlife wreaks havoc on the drip tubes by gnawing on them to get a drink of water. I think it is also a coyote sport to bite through and drag the tubes as far as possible. In addition, our very hard water clogs emitters while the weed control work damages tubes and emitters as well. Finally, the traffic in the orchard during harvest can also cause damage.


But back to the crop development, it appears as though the fruit set has been quite good and we are looking at an extremely large crop. It is rather late in developing this year, no doubt due to the long winter and cool temperatures. It looks like fruit set was good and consistent across all the varietals with the possible exception of the Manzanillo that is the lightest, but still would be considered a good set in most years.


For readers that are new to this business, here are a few things you should know. I have been getting a lot of calls from people concerned about how they had a massive bloom but then all the flowers dried up and fell off. Olive flowers are no different than any other flower. Dry up and fall is what they do and you just hope some fruit sets in the process. Typically only a low single digit percentage of the flowers will set fruit so don’t be surprised by the failure rate of flowers to set fruit. For more on this, you can read this article.


Something else you will find is that trying to assess the fruit set from a visual overview is very hard and takes the experience of multiple harvests. What invariably happens is, as the fruit starts to ripen, there appears to be vastly more fruit than what there appeared to be as it was forming and still green. Many growers actually count fruit set on a representative sample. I am not too certain of the point of this exercise as there is not a lot to be done once the fruit has set.


I have concerns about the crop size this year. First, labor shortages are already becoming apparent and I wonder where the labor will come from for the harvest. Second, the year before last we were just about at capacity for milling and it was a good but not great year like this one. I am curious whether or not there will be enough milling capacity in our area to handle the amount of fruit it looks like there is going to be. Stay tuned.

 


June 26, 2019

Back to Basics

I’ve digressed a bit in the last few postings and gotten away from what I had originally intended to cover in my blog. I really wanted to write about some of the day to day elements that differentiate The Olive Oil Source from some of our competitors that are strictly merchants. I think the biggest differentiation is that we actually farm and mill olives. The most basic element of this part of the business is producing fruit and this is the time of year when the crop load is decided.


There has been a lot of coverage of just how bad the crop in California was last year (it is great to be able to use the past tense) and the only good news about that is it usually means a very big crop the next year. This can never be a sure thing, however, as weather can wreak havoc in very little time. The biggest problem for our crop last year was that, just as it was time for our trees to bloom, we had unseasonably cold and wet weather that demolished the blossoms. Right now the trees are forming blossoms and it makes for a very stressful time as we worry what weather is in store for us.


In the 19 years we have been farming olives at our current location, we have never had a bloom forming like the one we have this year. It could be a truly amazing crop year and we will need it as inventories are almost non-existent already. Today I walked the orchard to assess the bloom. It was gorgeous as the orchard and surrounding hills are green, there is lupine, poppies and common Brodiaea everywhere and at 5:00 pm it was still in the high 70’s. At this point it looks like the Frantoio and Leccino will lead the way with the biggest bloom followed by Pendolino, Maurino, and Itrana with the Manzanillo and Sevillano trees bringing up the rear. That being said, those Manzanillo and Sevillano trees are loaded. It is too early to tell for our Grappolo trees as they bloom substantially later than the other trees.


With all of the varieties we grow and us farming in three microclimates in our orchard, not to mention varying soil quality in each microclimate, we will experience a broad spectrum of fruit load no matter what, but if nothing else, the bloom should be fantastic. Looking at the extended forecast, there is light rain and no freeze predicted so we’re keeping the fingers crossed.

 


April 8, 2019

…and Even More Of The Same

This is the third part of what was supposed to be a two part post.  I feel that this third section is important because it gets to the very core of what, in my mind, the O.O.C.C. should be about and if you are going to participate, what your business should be about. Not for one minute is anyone going to accuse me of being starry eyed or idealistic, but, to me, the whole point of this exercise is to produce good oil marketed in a bottle that tells the truth about the contents. It is a pretty straightforward concept and the intent is to assure the consumer they are getting what they expect to get when they buy a Californian oil and for producers to hopefully avoid the pitfalls other countries’ producers have fallen into.


I already espoused my views on the greed element in the previous post. To recap, certain parties are prepared to jeopardize all of the progress made over 20+ years to distinguish Californian oil as a superior product with truth in labeling in order to make a few extra bucks in a slow year, while for others defrauding customers is just the modus operandi. But what is even more alarming to me was the concern about lawsuits during the discussions.


The discussion around which verbiage to use to address what had to be the content of a bottle of oil with the words “California” and “olive oil” on it was quickly reduced to a discussion of lawsuits. The language that was ultimately chosen was selected because it had the least likelihood of creating a lawsuit. How absurd is it that this is the concern? I wonder how proud one can be of their company knowing that they can continue to mislead customers because the threat of a lawsuit allows them to?


We then discussed adding verbiage to say that, if your brand name had a place name in California in it, it had to have Californian oil in it. This immediately sent up red flags and clearly several attendees had already looked into this with lawyers. It was roundly agreed that this would result immediately in a lawsuit. Imagine, your brand name is San Francisco’s Best Olive Oil (this is intended to be a hypothetical name and if there is actually a company with that name, this is in no way related to them) and you’re filling those bottles with low quality oil from, say Syria, and to boot, you have the nerve to threaten a law suit because Californian producers think you’re misleading in your labeling. I’ll bet that’s someone who takes great pride in their business.


Why is this so hard? Why is it that so many people or companies feel that not only they need to cheat to succeed, but they have to be able to threaten a lawsuit to continue doing it. Moreover, how screwed up is our system that it perpetuates this behavior? Just say what you’re selling. It should be either a good product people are willing to pay a premium for, a good buy that people will want because it is a bargain, or it is somewhere in between and people view it as a good compromise. Based on what I see out there and not just in the olive oil world, maybe I am an idealist. Greed seems to have taken priority over honesty and hard work.

 


April 3, 2019

...The More They Stay the Same.

This is the second part of what was supposed to be a two part post. As I suspected, it will be longer than just two posts in order to vent all my frustrations adequately. My previous post in this series described my involvement in a meeting of the Grades and Standards Committee of the Olive Oil Commission of California on February 27, 2019. The goal was to adopt Health and Safety Code language into the Grade and Labeling Standards for California Olive Oil, which was done.


I would like to give a brief history of what has gone on in California in terms of trying to promote Californian oil and truth in labeling, at least from my perspective. The California Olive Oil Council (C.O.O.C.) really started this work in the late 90’s and there were a lot of people who pre-dated my involvement to whom I unfortunately cannot give credit as I was not there. I got involved in about 2003 and worked closely with people who really put a lot of effort into it like Dick Nielson at McEvoy Ranch, Alan Greene at California Olive Ranch, Albert Katz at Katz and Co., and Patty Darragh from the C.O.O.C.


At the time we were really fighting an uphill battle as no one knew about Californian olive oil nor was aware of the quality of the oil being produced. When I tried to sell our oil in New York, I got these puzzled responses that generally went something like, “What are you talking about? Olive oil comes from Italy”. Through a lot of tireless and often unrewarding work, by about 2013 we were starting to see producers sell out of their oil each year and a real premium was beginning to be established for California oil. Soon the Olive Oil Commission of California was created putting in place the most rigorous standards and mandatory testing procedures in the world. This process was largely driven by the big producers in the state in cooperation with the state department of agriculture.


Couple these efforts with a relentless barrage of bad press about adulterated foreign oil and demand really took off. Over the last 3 or 4 years, sourcing good California E.V.O.O. all year long began to be a problem as demand outstripped supply. Suddenly, all of those efforts to position Californian olive oil as a premium product paid off and producers could not keep up. The reason this is all relevant is as follows.


The meeting on 2/27/19 was in response to producers who had California or a place name in California in their product name but were selling imported oil. The concern was that consumers would not know, would not notice, or would be actively deceived into purchasing oil they thought was from California when it was not. What was particularly annoying to me was that producers who had led the way in establishing Californian oil as a premium product were now actively involved in selling imported oil that could easily be perceived as Californian, erasing the last two decades or more of work that had been done. Why would they do this? It seems to me that the answer is simple, greed.


I think the whole situation can be summed up in one brief exchange. The representative for one of the companies selling imported oil said that they were doing this strictly to replace the lost sales due to the crop failure. Another producer replied that they just sold less oil when theirs was a bad crop. The first company’s response to that was, “Well, we’re talking about very different situations here”. Both companies are millers, sell retail and bulk oil, and focus on the domestic market. The only difference in their situations that I could discern was one company chose to be honest and take a hit in revenues while the other company would not; let’s just say their concerns were elsewhere.

 


March 20, 2019

The More Things Change…

This is the first part of a two part post. In fact I will probably have to make it longer than just two posts to vent all my frustrations adequately. The intent of this first section is to report on my involvement in a meeting of the Grades and Standards Committee of the Olive Oil Commission of California on Wednesday, February 27, 2019. This was a meeting open to the public so don’t expect anything too interesting or controversial. The second part of the post is to address some of the history behind the events which led up to the meeting with a healthy dose of editorializing on my part.


On February 15, 2019 I received notice of the meeting to be held on the 27th and the agenda for it. The main reason for the meeting was item III on the agenda, “Adoption of Health and Safety Code Language into the Grade and Labeling Standards for California Olive Oil”. This seemed a bit vague to me so I requested the actual verbiage that was being proposed for adoption. I was sent the following:
Any olive oil produced, processed, sold, or offered for sale that is labeled with both of the terms “California” and “olive oil”, in the brand name or otherwise, or uses words or images to indicate that California is the source of the olive oil must be made of olive oil derived solely from olives grown in California.


I read this and was a bit perplexed. This verbiage seemed so fundamental to everything the O.O.C.C. was about as well as the primary purpose of its existence, I could not understand why this should even require adoption, let alone a meeting. It turns out that a loophole was left by the O.O.C.C. such that, should a company want to, they could put non-Californian oil in a bottle that gave the impression, by whatever was on the label, of being full of oil from California. By adopting the above verbiage, that loophole would be closed.
This would seem like a pretty straightforward issue to resolve but it took a full hour and 15 minutes of discussion to finally get a motion passed in which it was agreed that the Grades and Standards Committee would recommend to the Commission to adopt the exact phrase from the Health and Safety code that accomplished closing the loophole. The good news was that the vote was unanimous. The bad news was that it had to be done at all.


Early in the discussion I proposed the following. Companies that had in their name California or a place name in the state would have to put in the same font size as that location whatever variation from California oil was in the bottle. So, for example, if California was in your brand name and you had imported oil in the bottle, somewhere on the front label would be “imported” or “Oil from Timbuktu” or whatever, in the same font size as California or the place name. This seemed to me to be a good compromise as all Californian producers are hurting from the extremely poor crop this year and are trying to fill in for the lost sales one way or another. Unfortunately, others, of course, just make a habit of this sort of thing.


My suggestion got rejected. I had hoped to provide a workable solution that was not too onerous for the companies that were established with a place name in their name. The general sentiment of others on the commission was that this is not our concern. Our concern was to ensure the consumer got high quality extra virgin Californian olive oil when that is what the label appeared to be offering. The discussion continued and I will not bore you with the various permutations it took but ultimately it was deemed that using the exact language from the code would be most expeditious and would be least likely to result in lawsuits. In the same vein, a discussion about whether or not to include language that specifically identified using the name California, a region in the state or a place name soon bogged down as it was generally felt this would promptly result in legal action as well.


I think that the result was ultimately good for the industry and the consumer. In my next post I’ll get into why, in my opinion, I find it pathetic that this meeting had to even take place.

 


March 11, 2019

Flavored Oils

Last week, we were milling some Mission and Manzanillo fruit with Blood Oranges as we are now done making extra virgin olive oil. This process reminded me that last November, Curtis Cord wrote in Olive Oil Times what I thought was a very good piece about flavored oils. The gist of it was that flavored olive oil should not be labeled as extra virgin. I think he may have taken it a bit far saying it should not be labeled as olive oil at all as the percentage of the flavored oil that is flavoring falls in the low single digits, but that is splitting hairs. One thing for certain, flavored olive oil should not be labeled as extra virgin.


When I cook I prefer to use the actual ingredient such as basil or lemon zest or whatever. I can, however, think back to more hectic days when my wife and I did not have as much time to cook and flavored oils would have added a nice element to a lot of the routine weekday meals with no additional time spent. The same goes for flavored balsamic vinegars I think so there is a place for both of them in many kitchens. In addition, it’s not always possible to find the original flavor ingredients at the market if they are not in season, like blood oranges for instance.


Cord goes on to argue that the degree of distrust that currently surrounds the veracity of extra virgin olive oil is exacerbated by calling flavored oils extra virgin. The problem is that flavored oils cannot be tested for their integrity due to the addition of the flavoring components and so, much lower grade oil can be used with impunity. There is no incentive for a producer to use extra virgin olive oil since they can get away with using less expensive oil and increase their profit margin.


I have to say that calling flavored oil extra virgin is a pet peeve of mine too. Something else that really caught my attention on this subject this week was I saw some of our competitors’ price lists and noticed their flavored oils are running as much as 30% less than some of their extra virgin oils. If this does not raise alarm bells for customers’, it should. It is more costly to make flavored oils than extra virgin olive oil whether you are milling the ingredient with the olives or adding a flavoring to unflavored oil already produced, whatever grade of oil you are producing. At The Olive Oil Source, all of our infused oils are made with certified extra virgin olive oil and we routinely do random sampling of the oil we use to make sure it meets that quality standard. We do not, however, label an oil once it is flavored as extra virgin olive oil.


Just as with extra virgin olive oil, if the price seems too good to believe, don’t.

 


January 21, 2019

2018 Harvest and Milling

I had visions of writing several posts during milling season documenting the progression of the season, perhaps photos of the same variety of fruit coming in several weeks apart and also giving the differences in yields we saw as this transpired. Then I had hoped to have bucolic photos of our crop coming in on beautiful fall days, harvest crews in the background and so on. The reasons this did not happen are threefold.


First and foremost, milling season didn’t really happen this year. As has been pretty well documented in my blog and elsewhere, the crop was extremely light throughout the state due to the weather we had at the end of last winter and early spring. Beautiful weather ran from late January through early March causing many of the trees to bloom only to be followed by two months of very cool wet weather that destroyed the bud break. We will only end up milling a small fraction of our annual average tonnage this season and most of that was fruit for ourselves. As for the photos of the crews, crews wouldn’t be plural and you could fit the one crew there was in a four door truck. The custom crush for other orchard owners essentially didn’t happen. This year we may have milled 10% of the average amount of fruit we mill for other orchard owners. 


The second reason it didn’t happen is that the season was compressed. It doesn’t pay for us to mill for a couple hours day after day. Once the mill is fired up, it needs to run for a bit otherwise as much time is spent getting it up and running and then cleaning it as is spent actually milling. As a result, we only milled for a few weeks as opposed to a few months. We did not mill enough fruit of the same varietal over a long enough period of time to give three different ripeness evaluations. 
This compressed schedule is not great for our customers as we mill for orchards spread across about 200 miles of latitude ranging from orchards that overlook the ocean in central California to orchards that are quite a distance inland and much further south. The optimal times for customers spanning such a broad spectrum of microclimates and latitudes does not fall into a window of a few weeks.


The last reason those posts did not happen is that The Olive Oil Source was extremely busy this fall and demanded a lot more of my time than the mill did. Thank you to all of our customers who made it a very good fall. Thank you also to our mill manager and accountant, Jose and Blanca Rivera for handling the milling, scheduling, and paperwork associated with that work. Best wishes for great holidays to everyone who reads this.

 


December 27, 2018

California’s Extra Virgin Olive Oil Engine - Part 2

My last post briefly described SHD production and alluded to the competitive difficulties this method of production creates for both traditional and small SHD growers. In order for SHD production to work, it needs to be done on a relatively large scale: the cost of bringing in or owning the equipment is sufficiently high that if you are not farming sizable acreage, there is no cost effectiveness to the mechanization. This means that the typical SHD operation is better capitalized and more efficient than the typical small producer. That makes for a pretty tough competitor.


I was recently asked to speak to a group of small producers about marketing strategies and gave a presentation I have now given repeatedly. The main point I try to make is that you have to distinguish your product in some way from the oceans of California SHD oil being produced now. That distinction can take many forms like being a single varietal oil that isn’t Arbequina, Arbosano, or Koroneiki, being organic production, hand harvested fruit, a local product and the list goes on. The small producers who really have a problem, however, are the small SHD operations. They don’t have any way to distinguish themselves and they don’t get the cost savings of mechanization that the larger operations do.


After my presentation, one small SHD producer said to me, “I don’t need to distinguish our production because our oil tastes different from the large producers’ oil. I can tell the difference”. While I don’t doubt for a minute that that producer can tell the difference, it doesn’t really matter. The only thing that matters is: can the customer tell the difference and is it different enough to cause them to prefer it and to pay more for it? In my experience, they can’t and they don’t.


It is an unfortunate situation for a lot of small SHD growers. We are frequently approached by growers with anywhere from 1 to 20 or so acres wanting to sell us their excess oil at astronomical prices: 20% - 80% more than what we can purchase it for from the larger operations. Frequently it is hard for the producer to understand how it can be that their carefully made oil is not worth any premium but unless they can somehow successfully make a distinction pitch to a potential customer, it just isn’t.

Photo courtesy of California Olive Ranch

 


November 13, 2018