Putting a new face on the California olive industry

There’s a lot of buzz about locally grown foods and heightened consumer interest in knowing the “face behind the food.” However, not every crop can be successfully grown from coast to coast; how do consumers view fruits and vegetables with limited production areas? The California-style black ripe olive producers learned that Americans crave that personal connection, even if they’re separated by thousands of miles. They put modern technology to work to build bonds across the nation.

Mike Silveira, chair of the California Olive Committee, was elected to his office this year after years of committee involvement.

The California Olive Committee

The California Olive Committee (www.calolive.org), a federal marketing order, was formed by growers in 1965. The 1,000-member group is primarily comprised of family farmers in the northern and central regions of the state; prime growing sites include Tulare County in the San Joaquin Valley and Glenn and Tehama counties in the northern Sacramento Valley. Its subcommittees, along with a paid staff, focus on marketing, research and other relevant issues.

Thriving on California’s sunny days and cool nights, olives have been produced there for 250 years, initially for conversion to oil. Overplanting led to depressed olive oil prices, spawning the curing process that results in the ready-to-eat ripe black olive. Today, the state’s 27,000 acres of Manzanillo and Sevillano trees produce more than 95 percent of the nation’s crop.

Gauging public perception and awareness

In 2008, the marketing subcommittee undertook some consumer research to determine effective ways to promote its products. They wanted to assess the public perception of the olive and its growers and to gauge consumers’ knowledge about the fruit.

A food marketing and public relations firm surveyed consumers in Boston, Chicago and Phoenix. To the growers’ alarm, they found that, although the public liked their product, they were misinformed about olives. About one-third thought olives were U. S.-grown; another third believed they came from Europe or simply didn’t know. Only about 25 percent knew them to be California products.

In addition, survey participants didn’t associate family farming with California, believing that business model was limited to the Midwest. California’s farms were considered to be exclusively “corporate-run factory farms.”

“Having grown up in a California farming family, I was surprised, ” says Mike Silveira, who was elected as olive committee chair this July. The graduate of California State University-Chico has grown olives since 1984.

Silveira adds that most olive groves are family operations averaging 30 acres. Born of immigrant parents, he is representative of the industry, whose membership includes a wide range of national and cultural backgrounds.

Irrigation and weed control is important in olive groves.

Altering consumer opinion

The marketing subcommittee developed a plan to help consumers get to know its olive growers. The Web Site was revamped and reintroduced; its look and feel is now one of a casual, welcoming nature with an emphasis on the professional, yet family-oriented characteristics of the industry.

“We were previously strong on recipes, which people like, and we have stepped that up even more, ” Silveira says. That move included an online offer of a print recipe booklet. “Web traffic has grown, ” he adds. “We had 50,000 requests for the recipe book in the first half of this year. About 68 percent of requesters signed up for [our e-mail distribution list].”

Cooking videos, along with a glossary and tips for shopping, meal preparation and entertaining also are featured. Content includes health and nutritional information, along with children’s activities and lesson plans for teachers.

Making the connection

A centerpiece of the new campaign focused on forging relationships between growers and consumers. Again, the committee’s Web site and 21st-century techniques were put to work.

Silveira and other growers produced videos averaging 2.5 minutes in length, thus opening their groves to the public via their Web site and YouTube. Viewers see farmers and their children, some of whom expect to be sixth generation growers in their family’s groves, walking and working the land and sharing their love of the lifestyle. “Three generations of olive growers” demonstrates the struggles of a farming family who lived in a truck as migrant workers and later a mobile home, before being able to start a grove and build a home.

Sally Campbell’s video, entitled “Mother talks about farming olives in California,” doesn’t pull any punches. Subtitles promise that Campbell can wrangle rattlesnakes and still serve lunch on time. Traveling to her groves via miniature horse-drawn carriage with her infant son onboard, she discusses the growing process and her joy in raising food and family simultaneously.

Viewers can share a video lunch in a farm kitchen with growers who make their own pizzas with a little bit of everything, naturally including ripe black olives. Growers’ favorite ways to eat their product are shared in another movie set on a home patio.

The video campaign is having the desired effect, according to Silveira: “The marketing sub-committee and board are very excited. Sales are improving and our processors are having good sales.”

The committee is reaching out to other agricultural groups with its videos and has partnered with the Emeril Henry cookware line, which was used in recipe video production and ongoing demonstrations. The cookware company included the committee’s cookbook with purchases of its products.

Grower Sally Campbell heads out to her groves with son Jonathan via golf cart. The pair also travels by miniature horse-drawn carriage.

“These are exciting times; there are new opportunities for us, ” Silveira says. Although he and fellow growers are challenged by water issues and urbanization, they don’t face significant insect pressure. The industry is growing with new plantings in the state’s northern region; processors continue to develop additional black olive products. Traditional hand harvesting will be supplemented or replaced by mechanized picking systems currently being tested, helping to overcome periodic labor shortages.

Although growers often claim to be good farmers and poor marketers, the California Olive Committee, by pooling both its resources and its struggles, demonstrates that even the unlikely proposition of being a local farmer to an entire nation is possible.

More Ways to Connect with Consumers
Building relationships creates loyal customers. Growers are reporting successful results when they reach out and share their stories. Here are a few ways to get started:

  • Strengthen community supported agriculture groups with farm visits and volunteer opportunities, recipes, cooking and preservation guides and demonstrations.
  • Offer similar giveaways at farmers’ markets and roadside stands.
  • Arrange sales directly with area restaurants and retail stores rather than using a distributor. Hold a “meet the farmer” event with those clients. Ask to have your farm’s name mentioned on menus, signs and sales flyers.
  • Be easy to find by those interested in local food by listing your farm on Web sites such as www.localharvest.org and state and county farm guides.
  • Team with other growers to sponsor a local foods dinner. A guide is available at www.landstewardshipproject.org.
  • Be a part of organized efforts such as Slow Food USA, www.slowfoodusa.org.

Based in Greensboro, N.C., the author writes articles about horticulture, landscaping, agriculture and travel. She has been a contributor to Moose River Media publications for three years.