'We want to do things the growers would not do'
By TIM HEARDEN
CHICO, Calif. -- The university here is giving students hands-on experience with one of the state's fastest-growing agricultural industries.
The farm at California State University-Chico now includes a 10-acre, high-density orchard growing olives for oil.
The orchard, completed in October with the help of industry supporters, includes the Arbequina and Arbosana varieties, with Chiquitita trees expected to be put in by next spring.
It will be two years before the orchard starts producing a crop, said Rich Rosecrance, a plant sciences professor at Chico State.
"It does expose our students to a new industry that's gone from nothing 15 years ago to 25,000 acres today," Rosecrance said.
The trees will also serve as research subjects for the relatively new system of high-density olive production, which involves mechanical harvests rather than picking by hand.
"We want to do things the growers would not do" with their orchards, Rosecrance said. "Our livelihood does not depend on what we're getting."
For instance, the university will be using four different irrigation regimes and comparing their affects on trees, he said.
While the table olive industry has struggled in recent years, the acreage of the fruit grown for oil has increased dramatically. The boom is fueled by skyrocketing demand for olive oil among health-conscious consumers. Annual consumption in the U.S. has risen in the last 10 years from 30 million gallons to between 70 million and 80 million gallons, according to industry statistics.
The California Olive Oil Council estimates 8,000 to 10,000 new acres will be planted each year through 2020. California produces most of the olive oil in the United States, although olive plantings for oil can be found in Oregon's Willamette Valley and Medford area as well as in Georgia and Texas.
For the orchard at Chico State, the young trees, irrigation and trellis systems, land development and labor were donated by local businesses, including NursTech, Durham Pump, Matt Anchordoguy Co., A and J Vineyards and California Olive Ranch.
The orchard's planting was organized by Matt Lohse, the olive ranch manager at Carriere Family Farms near Willows, Calif. Lohse said he hopes the knowledge gained from the university's project will help the industry.
"A lot of people thought that soil was too good a soil for the olives, so it's a way to test high-quality soil for olives," he said. "It's very capable soil ... They're trying new varieties. Arbosana is a really slow-growing variety, so we're hoping on this kind of soil it's more conducive."
California State University-Chico College of Agriculture: http://www.csuchico.edu/ag/
California Olive Oil Council: www.cooc.com