Using the latest in growing techniques, central San Joaquin Valley farmers increasingly are investing in the olive oil industry.
Two diversified growers each have planted hundreds of acres of olive trees. One of the farming operations plans to bottle its own brand of premium olive oil by the end of the year.
Patricia Darragh, executive director of the California Olive Oil Council in Berkeley, says new growing methods and mechanical harvesting have accelerated interest in olive oil, especially in the central San Joaquin Valley.
About 25,000 acres of olives are planted in the state, much of it in the Sacramento Valley. But recent growth has come in the San Joaquin Valley, Darragh said.
The Valley is well-suited to producing olives. The trees grow well in marginal soil and generally require less water than other fruit trees.
For decades, Tulare County has been the nation's leading producer of olives for the canning industry.
And while the Valley still grows olives for the canning industry, consumer interest in olive oil has grown as more people have become aware of its healthful properties.
Olives used for canning are a different variety than those used to make premium oil. Growers carefully select olive varieties that produce distinctive flavors.
West-side grower Don Cameron began thinking about growing olives for oil in the mid-1990s, but the cost of hand harvesting kept him on the sidelines. Now, higher-density tree planting coupled with mechanical harvesting has made it affordable for farmers.
Two years ago, Cameron planted 100 acres of olive trees in Fresno County specifically for oil production. The trees are tightly spaced and can easily be harvested by machine.
Last fall, he harvested his first crop, which he sold to the California Olive Ranch, the nation's largest grower and processor of olive oil.
"The industry has really evolved," said Cameron, who also grows cotton, tomatoes and wine grapes. "And you now have everybody from small boutique producers to people who are producing high-volume and high-quality oil."
Although California is a relatively tiny player in the U.S. olive oil market -- about 98% is imported -- industry leaders say the appetite for the state's premium oil is growing.
Last year, California's olive oil production topped 1.1 million gallons, up from 870,000 gallons the previous year.
Hoping to tap the interest in California-made oil is the Ricchiuti family in Clovis.
Tree and nut fruit farmers for many years, the Ricchiutis are in the final stages of launching their own brand of extra virgin olive oil. The family planted 300 acres in Madera County and bought a processing plant near Highway 99 and Seventh Avenue.
Vincent Ricchiuti, director of operations for the family-run P-R Farms, said the plan is to install Italian-made oil milling equipment this summer and begin bottling by the end of the year.
The new company, called Enzo Oil, still has to create a bottle design and label.
Ricchiuti said the family will blend Arbequina, Arbosana and Kornoeiki olive varieties to produce an oil with a nutty and slightly peppery bite.