Central Valley olive grower battles imports


For the Capital Press

Jeff Martin grows olives for oil near San Martin, Calif. He and other California growers face competition from cheap, low-quality imported olive oil.

SAN MARTIN, Calif. — Jeff Martin has some choice words for cheap olive oil imports and the language omitted from the new farm bill.

“Aside from the fruit fly, the threat of imports is the second biggest pest,” he said. “In Europe, all olive oil is subsidized by the government. Frankly, I hoped the farm bill had the language that the American olive oil producers wanted to see, forbidding the importation of adulterated oil” that is sold as higher grade oil.

He said New York interests killed the legislation.

“Money in New York is bigger than the California olive oil lobby,” he said.

The United States is the third largest olive oil consumer, after Italy and Spain.

Martin didn’t plan on being an olive grower; he was a landscaper. Twelve years ago his property was zoned open space. Agriculture is an accepted use for open space in the county and he wanted a permanent crop. Then, he said, he realized there was no crop more permanent than olive trees. There are 400-year-old olive trees in Italy and Spain that are still producing.

Martin also had to find out which variety would be productive and profitable, the only way to compete with the cheap imports. He also wanted an olive that larger olive growers couldn’t grow. Martin chose the Frantoio variety for his 30 acres.

“A University of California Cooperative Extension guy suggested the variety,” he said. “The fruit makes a really distinctive, desirable flavor and beautiful oil.”

Although there are 500 types of olives in California most are varieties first planted by the missionaries.

His premium grade olive expresses a bigger flavor characteristic and fruity complexity, he said.

Workers in Martin’s orchard hand-pick the small olives. It takes five years for the trees to produce. Harvest extends from Oct. 30 to around Nov. 5. The fruit goes directly to his mill a couple of miles away. Olives are ground and then sent through a centrifuge to separate the oil from the pulp.

“My olive grove will become financially feasible when people know the difference between quality and inferior oil,” he said. “The only way is to taste the difference.”

California Olive Oil Council has strict regulations to certify an olive oil is extra virgin. Producers have to meet six chemical analysis criteria and a taste panel sensory evaluation. The sticker on the bottle means a consumer is getting the real thing.

“Actually, olive oil has a short shelf life,” he said. “I would say one year from the day I bottle. Light, air and heat are the three things that will change oil from good to bad. Exposure to sunlight can turn oil rancid in three months.” He said that if olive oil smells like crayons, wax or wet hay, it is rancid.

Jeff Martin

Family involved in business: Wife, Pam

Location: San Martin, Calif.

Crops: Olives

Acreage: 30

Favorite treat: Vanilla ice cream, topped with olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt.


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