Shawn's Blog | The Olive Oil Source Wholesale Store

Shawn's Blog

Fake News

I have been following, at some remove, the steady flow of lawsuits in the olive oil industry, not in small part through The Olive Oil Times but also through other media. It is really a staggering lineup including so many of the giants like Deoleo, Filippo Berio, Safeway Inc., Capatriti (Kangadis), and the most recent additions to the list, J.M. Smucker Co./Transnational Foods Inc.

Something that caught my attention in these costly mudslinging exercises, however, were some of the statements made by Deoleo CEO Pierluigi Tosato as reported in Just-Food (7/13/18) and The Olive Oil Times (7/11/18). Mr. Tosato makes the excellent proposition of having a global standard for what constitutes E.V.O.O., even though there are some monumental hurdles to such an idea given geographic differences in the chemical composition of olive oil. This still does not seem like an insurmountable goal and could only be good for the industry.

Mr. Tosato goes on to say “Consumption (of olive oil) is falling because consumers have a lack of confidence and they don’t trust anything”.  This is a statement that is hard to argue with given the number of suits listed above, the numerous reports over the years of Italian law enforcement breaking up adulterated oil operations, and studies like the infamous one conducted by U.C. Davis.   

Deoleo’s response to this confusion is where a substantial disconnect really begins for me. The Deoleo website, under a title of “…official statement against fake olive oil news” goes to great lengths to disparage the U.C. Davis study stating, “Recently you may have seen false and defamatory online articles circulating, which make reference to various olive oil brands. The information these articles are based on is from a study made in 2010 by the University of California Davis Olive Center. This study was completely discredited …” (http://deoleo.com/english-carapelli-official-statement-against-fake-olive-oil-news/?lang=en)." They do this making a case for why their products are legitimate. I find it hard to see how belittling a study by a reputable  academic institution, and making allusions to it being fake news is ultimately going to clarify much for any consumer, though.

The Olive Oil Times astutely if a bit vaguely points out that:

“Industry observers note that it’s those allegations, fake or not, that were the driving force behind changes at Deoleo and other major producers in recent years, and if it weren’t for the Davis study and others just like it conducted around the world since then, it would likely be business as usual.”

Looking back at 15 – 20 years of lawsuits, busts, and personal tasting of some pretty horrific olive oils labeled as E.V.O.O.,  I don’t think the issue is really fake news or university studies that question the quality of products labeled E.V.O.O.  The problem, it seems to me, is that there is a long track record of questionable product being marketed as E.V.O.O.  Rather than trot out the now tired hue and cry of fake news and distraction tactics, maybe it is time to just market oil that is really E.V.O.O. even if it means sacrificing a bit on the sacred bottom line, and then consumers won’t be confused.


August 9, 2018

Contrasts

Last week I was out on a small consulting project that has been particularly rewarding. My client wanted to be involved in agriculture on a hobby level. He wanted to farm something on a small scale, not go into it with any particular commercial intent, and produce something he could really take pride in. After looking at a number of options, he ultimately bumped into a constraint that we are all faced with: water costs. That made the decision easy, he would produce olive oil as all the other crops considered required far too much water. Being involved in the health care industry made olives an even better choice for him.

 

This project has gone very well for a number of reasons. The moderately sloped land, good soil, good exposure and mild weather made this an ideal orchard site. I have been involved with this small project now for about 3 years and as you can see, the orchard is thriving. With minimal consulting fees but good research by the owner and listening to the advice he was given, he has had great success. Other than a very brief, small, and easily contained outbreak of black scale, he has had no other setbacks. The first small crop should be coming off the trees this year which is always so rewarding for a producer, even if not cost effective.

 

By contrast and a bit ironically, I consulted on a project less than 3 miles away from the one described above. While it was also a small undertaking, it was intended to be twice the size of the first orchard but on an extremely steep slope with poor soil and a southeast exposure battered with scorching desert winds. The owner wanted an instantly profitable orchard requiring no upkeep and wasn’t interested in learning anything about farming, the industry, or the final product. He did inquire about what sort of return he could expect on his investment.

 

I tried to make clear that farming on that land would be very difficult and never profitable given the slope and amount of water that would be required. Additionally, it would be very expensive to get the orchard planted in the first place. I also told him he also should expect exorbitant harvests costs given the steep slope and poor accessibility. Despite my cautioning, he went ahead with the project and had me consult one more time in the process as he was beginning to install irrigation and do the first plantings. I did not hear from him after that. Although I know some trees were actually planted, I went by the property recently and there were no trees visible. I fear he discovered the hard way that it was not suited to farming. I have chosen not to show a photo of the land for privacy reasons.

 


July 19, 2018

It's that time of year.

Olive HarvestIt’s that time of year. Every year at about this time we start to get inquiries about olive milling. It is too early to be worrying about harvest and milling but it is hard getting this message to resonate with people very excited about their first or second crop. Like every year, this year I have already heard, “Well last year we started harvesting on October 25th, so we’d like to schedule based on that timing”. And, “We’d rather book a time and make sure we have something scheduled than risk not getting a milling time”. 


There is no way to know at this stage when your crop is going to be ready to harvest.Temperatures and irrigation or that rarity called rainfall can and will dramatically impact when your crop is ready. In addition to the long-term vagaries of the weather and water between now and when you would ideally like to harvest, there will also be short term factors as you approach harvest that can impact your milling date. 

For example, you may need to harvest a bit earlier than you would like to due to imminent frost or, as has been the case in the last year, threatening fires. Unfortunately, another consideration for those farming traditionally is that there may be difficulty finding sufficient available labor thereby slowing down your harvest. But you’ll have to cross those bridges later.


Expecting your crop to come in on the same date as last year or anywhere close will just lead to time wasted on irrelevant planning both for you and for your miller. For now, for some tips on figuring out when to harvest, take a look at the information from our website on harvest timing. If your enthusiasm about your upcoming crop is simply untamable, start thinking about what you will need to have lined up when the time does come. Our milling checklist can help you out with that. 

Last, but not least, listen to your local miller. Millers see vast amounts of fruit year after year. They see all the mistakes people make as well as their successes. Equally important, they are in regular contact with numerous growers in your immediate area and are a great source for relevant information.

 


July 8, 2018

Vacation

There’s been a long break from any posts here because I’ve been on vacation in the French Alps. I decided it was going to be as work free a vacation as possible, in an effort to rejuvenate my enthusiasm for The Olive Oil Source, to come up with some new ideas, and to leave behind the inevitable day-to-day frustrations. Here is how I did.

I did forget the frustrating aspects for the most part, at least during the trip. Just before I left, however, I saw an article in a publication that was essentially the blog post I wrote on May 21 but it gave no credit for its source. This is quite frustrating especially since it has happened repeatedly with them. It is a good publication that is very useful to the industry and I think it degrades them not to show sources. Prior to leaving, I also read that the big importers to the U.S. said they were strengthening their standards to be “…the most robust olive oil standards in America…”. That is quite a statement that could be picked apart very easily, but fortunately that is not my responsibility. I’m so glad I went on vacation! I really did forget about this kind of thing for a bit.

The break did serve to rejuvenate my enthusiasm for our business though. Rather than getting down and feeling uninspired trying to compete with entities that will print anything to get a sale, Brian, our general manager, and I are committed to a completely different approach. We’re looking for new products that we feel really confident about and like to use ourselves. Brian is in New York at the Fancy Food Show, meeting with vendors to see if he can track down anything we feel qualifies to add to our lineup. At the same time he is meeting with a few of our existing vendors to keep those ties strong. Meanwhile, I am and will be working on new products and am looking forward to consulting on two new orchards in the near future with the hope that we can work together further down the line. Nothing makes me more enthusiastic about the business than getting into the field and working with growers.

I’m not so sure about the new ideas, although there are a few new products we will be developing. I think what came out of this break more than anything else for me is that we should stick with what has gotten us this far. That is, primarily, listening to our customers and trying to source good products they want that we do not currently carry. It is time to get back out there and talk to our customers and for all of you, if there is something you would like to see us carry, please do not hesitate to let us know.


June 29, 2018

Crucial Assistance

I am involved with The Olive Oil Source as the owner, I farm 4,300 trees and I mill that fruit in our own mill. In addition, we mill olives commercially for a lot of small producers totaling somewhere around 20,000 – 40,000 trees worth of fruit depending on the year. As written earlier, much of my time is taken up with consulting work. The only way all that could possibly get done is with really good employees (and my wife's help). I thought I’d write a bit about some of the great people who work here.

At The Olive Oil Source, our relatively new general manager, Brian Gloria, has been doing a fabulous job. His background is on customer service in the food industry with experience in retail, specifically in tasting bar management, so he is perfectly familiar with what a lot of our clients do and understands customer service like few others. His experience in this capacity has given him knowledge in tasting room designs & concepts as well as customer purchasing decisions and tendencies. He believes customer education is fundamental to success as the tasting rooms that make it are usually the ones that have a heuristic approach to learning about the olive oil industry and work to bring people and food together.

Having also worked as operations manager for a catering department handling school lunch programs, he also has a strong background in food preparation processes, quality control, health standards, etc. The daily preparation and delivery of 1,500 – 2,000 lunches also honed his process management skills. He led marketing efforts to maintain and acquire new schools and helped in opening two new concept locations for that business.

All of this is perfect training for running The Olive Oil Source. Couple this extensive experience with his enjoyment of connecting with people that share similar interests and he becomes someone all our customers should get in touch with. Having a hand in the operation of olive oil tasting rooms has given him the ability to connect, interact, and share in the customer experience of olive oil education. His knowledge is invaluable as he has actually tasted, used, and enjoyed the products we sell. Since coming on board to The Olive Oil Source, an equal focus of his has been learning about production and processes used in the field for growing, harvesting, processing, and testing, thereby rounding out his knowledge of the products we offer. In addition, he is a joy to work and interact with!


May 23, 2018

Orchard Check

Young blossoms

 

It is an interesting time in the orchard right now as we monitor the trees for what we can expect for a crop.  The rumor is that the crop may be quite light statewide which is not good news given the rapidly growing popularity of Californian olive oil and the price hikes and shortages we’ve been seeing the last few years.  Usually by this time of year in our orchard, we have had bloom and sometimes even fruit set, although that is pretty rare this early.

This year, the trees seem confused.  Many have already bloomed and are starting to set fruit while for others the blossoms are just beginning to form as you can see in these two photos, above and below.  

While there are always noticeable inconsistencies in an olive orchard depending on the particular location in the orchard and the variety of the tree, it is very unusual for the spread between the trees’ annual development to be this large.  These trees are only about 100 yards apart.

In our case, the probable reason for this disparity is that we had spectacular weather from the end of January to the beginning of March.  Clear sunny days were the norm for week after week with temperatures edging into the low 80s some days, which is pretty unusual for that long a period.  We normally might get a week or two of that in January or February but it just went on and on this year.  Then we had a cold wet March and cold windy April including snow down to 2,500’ and I think it caused chaos in the orchard.

Based on what we are seeing right now, we will probably end up having to do two harvests which is a monumental inconvenience for everyone from the owners to the pickers to the millers.  Stick around and we’ll see what happens.

 

Blooms and fruit set


May 21, 2018

The Olive Oil Commission of California (OOCC)

A meeting of the Olive Oil Commission of California (OOCC) was held on May 3 in Woodland. There are several committees within the commission including the Grades and Standards Committee and I attended as a member of that panel. This is not a particularly pleasant undertaking as, to attend, I have a 6 hour trip each way but it is worth it to be part of the valuable work the commission is doing. I should probably give a little background into the commission as surprisingly few people in the industry are aware of it and what role it plays. Unlike the California Olive Oil Council (COOC), the Olive Oil Commission falls under the purview of the California Department of Food and Agriculture and membership is mandatory by law for producers of 5,000 gallons or more annually. There is no conflict of interest in their testing processes either in that membership isn’t optional and the OOCC does not engage in product promotion or marketing.

What makes the OOCC and their work so unique is the manner in which testing and compliance are carried out. The OOCC standard provides stringent product specifications for California olive oils with rigorous sampling methodology and testing required from third-party testing labs. Furthermore, the OOCC is a mandatory government program. Through the OOCC, the California Department of Food and Agriculture oversees the verification of California olive oil quality.

But back to the 5/3 meeting, while there was a lot of discussion about the scientific aspects of grades and labeling, what really struck me was a discussion about this year’s mandatory sampling and testing results. Without going into a detailed breakdown of the numbers of samples taken, test results, etc., the bottom line is that, if you buy Californian olive oil, you can count on the quality of oil being what is written on the label, and as those of us in the industry know, this is definitely not the case around the world.

Perhaps more surprising to me is that as of the date of the meeting, 25% of the producers required to participate in the program had not paid their dues. The expense is $.15/gal., hardly an onerous fee and yet the results the commission is getting are fabulous for these producers. We have seen demand for Californian extra virgin olive oil outstrip supply several years in a row now and prices have gone up about 10% per year for the last three years. To shirk one’s responsibility to help fund these phenomenal results is unconscionable. One last comment on this, the fact that there is such unbiased comprehensive testing and policing of quality for Californian olive oils is why we, at The Olive Oil Source, try to offer them as much as possible. No one else in the world is doing this.

I’d like to thank Boundary Bend and Cobram Estates for hosting these meetings and furthering the great work being done by the commission.


May 14, 2018

Our Customers

One task I have that I wish I had more time for is getting out and talking to our customers. I enjoy seeing their olive oil stores, hearing what is and what is not working for them, and most of all, what new products they’d like to see. When The Olive Oil Source started, it was all about selling hard-to-find equipment for producing olive oil to the fledgling olive oil industry in California. Starting in about 2009, however, we began to get a lot of inquiries from tasting bars, gourmet shops, and private labelers to start offering a broader array of single varietal, organic, and flavored olive oils, and wine and balsamic vinegars. It turned out that the existing suppliers of these products to tasting bars and other stores were not satisfying demand and/or their service was lacking in some way.

It was quite easy for us to ramp up our olive oil offerings but on the vinegar and balsamic vinegar front, we had to learn about the industry, producers both foreign and domestic, and develop a supply chain of products we could be proud of offering. This included, among other things, going to Italy, meeting producers and trying their products. We did all that and now have a broad array of regular and balsamic vinegars available. This would have never occurred without direct contact with customers who asked us to pick up this balsamic vinegar or that olive oil. Of note is that many of these interactions were not with our existing customer base but disgruntled customers of other suppliers.

As a result of listening to these requests, the food sales side of our business has grown to the point that it now dwarfs any other sector of the company. Some of the more recent requests have been for Harissa and Herbes de Provence flavored olive oils and Date Balsamic Vinegar. Although these client requests were made some months ago, it takes us a while to work out the exact flavoring process to get the best results. I want to thank all the customers who have requested a specific product and encourage others to do so whenever they find something they’d like to see us carry. Here is a photo of a tasting bar that does extremely well with our single varietal oil offerings.


May 10, 2018

Helping Small Olive Oil Producers

A big part of our business in the past has been providing equipment to small olive oil producers, essentially boutique operations. Small producers still make up the bulk of our equipment sales augmented with items for retail sales operations. A large part of my time these days is spent working in a consulting capacity for these smaller operations. This work involves everything from checking on olive orchards to helping with equipment decisions or facility layouts for olive oil producers as well as giving advice on setting up new retail operations. Last week I was helping a small producer with their bottling operations.

Bottling olive oil in many ways is quite a simple undertaking, however, it has gotten a lot more complicated in the last couple of years with the advent of the F.D.A.’s FSMS (Food Security Monitoring System) for which compliance requirements began to kick in September of 2016. While many of the operations we deal with are exempt from the FSMS laws as they are farms, there is a lot to be gained in terms of good management practices from those requirements. For better or worse, now more than ever, producers need to evaluate whether it is worth doing their own bottling. The cost to set up even a small olive oil bottling line coupled with the time spent on regulatory compliance often makes it more logical just to send their product to a co-packer.

That being said, if you want to be able to have that “Estate Bottled” verbiage on your label, you have to pay the price for the equipment, labor, and compliance. In the case of the people I was working with last week, the cost of one of our Enolmatic fillers, which is more than capable of handling their bottling requirements, is just a very small fraction of the costs associated with them doing their bottling. In addition to the costs already mentioned above, they need to have a room with washable surfaces and that means investing in new flooring, wall surfaces and ceiling in the room they want to use. Additionally, they will need new lighting and a sink added. Given their production, I would encourage them to send their olive oil bottling out to a co-packer like The Olive Oil Source. Realistically they can probably bottle for 10 years with a co-packer for less than it will cost them to do it themselves.


May 8, 2018

Farming Realities

There is a lot of literature out there on the right way to do things in this industry whether it is planting, pruning, harvesting, milling, storage, or any of a number of other aspects of the business. In a perfect world they sound great and are what we strive for, but we see and hear a lot from people taking those points a little too far. Sometimes the physical or economic realities of the situation simply don’t allow you to do something the way it is described in a book. Pruning this year is a perfect example of that.

Ideally we’d like to prune, weather permitting, as soon as we finish harvesting. Often times this would drag out a bit as we avoid having open cuts on the trees close to rainfall, but that timing would be perfect. The problem is that we do not only mill olives from our own orchard. We also mill fruit we purchase and fruit for clients. Manpower tends to be in short supply at that time of year. This year, we finished milling late due to a very good crop, and once we had the time to really go after pruning, a month of wet weather moved in.

The result is we are still pruning in early April, which is not really ideal but there was no other option under the circumstances. Here Jose, our farm manager, works his way down a row of 10 year old Frantoio and Leccino trees.


April 5, 2018