Industry and education collaboration

These Mission olive trees at UC Davis Wolfskill Experimental Orchard were planted in 1861.
Photos courtesy of the University of California Davis Olive Center.

California olive growers, struggling with several challenges including unregulated foreign competition and labor concerns, now have a major ally in the University of California Davis (UCD) Olive Center (www.olivecenter.ucdavis.edu/).

UCD and olives go back to the institution’s establishment in 1908. An integral part of building the campus was incorporating olive trees dating back to 1861, which continue to thrive and produce fruit. In addition, the school’s faculty is rich with experts in the field and its cooperative extension service provides farm advisers who have assisted growers for decades.

At the same time, the advisers perceived a need for greater assistance from the university as growers faced mounting challenges. The table olive market was declining, while oil was gaining popularity.

By 2007, the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science had broken ground on campus and one insightful staffer saw an opportunity. Dan Flynn, who was involved in making oil from campus olive trees, came up with a proposal for the center in early 2007. He envisioned an organization that would pool campus resources and work closely with the industry to offer education and research aimed at improving the crop’s sustainability. Flynn, now the center’s executive director, got the green light fulfilling his dream before year’s end. The new effort would be housed in the Mondavi Institute, but funds for operations would have to be raised.

The industry and university eagerly offered support, allowing the center to open in January 2008. Today, revenue from campus olive oil sales, educational courses and research projects balances the center’s budget.

Programs and services

Flynn says the center’s overall goals are to enhance the quality and economic viability of California olives and oil. Its resources are also available to growers in other areas, such as Oregon and Texas.

Sales of olive oil processed from campus crops help support the center.

“We help growers be more profitable,” he adds. “We provide the best available information to reduce costly mistakes. Our center strives to aid growers in delivering high-quality products at the lowest possible production cost.”

Educational programming is offered at reasonable costs, as well as no-fee demonstrations, along with short courses that cost about $250 per day. Classes include sensory evaluation, olive production, marketing and milling.

“Our greatest offering is accessibility,” Flynn says. “A big university can be confusing for growers who want to plug in, but now they can call the olive center to be directed to the right person.”

Initially, that was challenging, even for Flynn and his staff. The team had to learn how both the university and the industry work. In addition, they must balance diverse needs and remain financially viable, while the small staff establishes an innovative new resource.

Improving the industry through research

Research is an important service of the olive center. Efforts are driven by growers’ needs and funded by the industry. When the center is approached with a study request, it coordinates the effort between the industry and researchers.

Paul Vossen, University of California farm adviser, leads a sensory evaluation of olive oil.

Research has been completed to address growers’ concerns about low-quality imported products, and the sensory traits of California black-ripe olives and imported fruits were compared. Not only did consumers prefer the domestic olives, a trained sensory panel noted flavor defects in the foreign competitors. These findings will lead to center-sponsored training for United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspectors to assist them in spotting flavor problems in imported olives.

“Olives are a unique product in that grading involves sensory components,” says Flynn, a marked difference from produce that is graded only based upon factors such as size. “A trained sensory panel is needed for quality evaluation.” The center is conducting sensory research for oil as well.

In addition, the country has no quality or labeling requirements for domestic or imported olive products. Although some USDA standards established in the 1940s are still in effect, they are outdated and aren’t enforced.

Growers considering super-high-density orchards can access survey results of those currently using the method at the center’s Web site. In the first comprehensive review of this technique, which involves planting 660 trees on trellises per acre, growers reported their preferred spacing and watering specifications and shared information about yield and other factors.

Additional research may benefit super-high-density and other growers by developing a mechanical harvester. In fact, with the high cost of hand-harvesting and ongoing labor concerns, it’s fast becoming a necessity for the industry. Researchers are wrapping up a four-year study this year.

To be successful, investigators must develop a mechanical technique for table olives that doesn’t bruise or cut the fruit. Olives are harvested before they are fully mature, making it difficult to utilize the major types of fruit removal equipment. Trunk shakers are inefficient and damage the trunks, and canopy contact heads damage the fruit.

Scientists are looking to develop an abscission or shedding agent that makes the fruit easier to remove. However, the creation of an agent that effectively loosens the olives without damaging the trees will require increased funding and at least five years of development.

That is leading the team to consider developing harvesters that can effectively remove fruit without causing damage. In evaluating harvesters, scientists are finding that altering the trees to make the fruit more accessible will increase harvest efficiency. They continue to evaluate mechanical topping at 12 feet and hedging 6 feet from the trunk on one side of the tree. Maintaining trees in a narrow canopy hedgerow configuration is also being tested. While trials will continue to rate results over several years, it appears that these modifications will facilitate mechanical harvesting. All available harvesters are being evaluated on altered orchards.

Other olive center research focuses on organic tree management, development of disease-resistant rootstock, olive fly control and black-ripe processing. Oil-related projects include adulteration and processing. In an early victory, the center helped the California Olive Oil Council draft legislation that went into effect in 2009, requiring that oil labeling be consistent with international grading standards.

Off to a running start

That legislative change could make U.S. oil more competitive with imports by leveling the playing field. That major accomplishment, achieved before the center celebrated its first anniversary, was just the beginning of rapid progress of its goals.

Olives are milled for oil at the UCD Olive Center.

In its first two years, it has worked with nursery leaders to create a permanent fund for olive tree certification and research, and it hosted the largest international conference on olive oil quality in the U.S. The center has also worked closely with the Culinary Institute of America, National Association of the Specialty Food Trade and food media to educate food opinion leaders about olive oil, and its educational Web site was launched with free access to relevant publications, presentations and data. Flynn and his staff have also secured and planted 900 donated trees, representing 25 varieties, to enhance campus orchards.

Flynn’s wish list for future projects and expansions include tapping into international expertise via distance learning. He is also concerned about the shrinking size of the cooperative extension and would like to hire additional farm advisers. Additionally, he hopes a pot of gold will come his way to support UCD faculty.

“Lots of experienced people will retire within the next five years,” Flynn says. “I hope we will have the resources to hire professors as people begin to retire. It will be hard to replace that talent.”

Given Flynn and company’s impressive track record, California olive growers and processors should be confident that the UC Davis Olive Center will continue to be a valuable resource well into the future.

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.