California Olive Growing and Pressing at Yolo Bulb

Katie H. Michel, our Farmers’ Market Operations Manager, visited Yolo Bulb to interview Madison, our newest olive oil vendor at the Tuesday South Berkeley Farmers’ Market.

When Mike Madison decided to plant an orchard on his 22-acre property near Winters, he set forth three requirements for his tree crops: that they have minimal pest problems, low water needs, and that they not require bees. After some thought, he decided that olive trees were the best fit given his terms. Since planting a 7.5-acre orchard of mixed olive varieties in 1991, olive oil has become a main output of his small, organic farm, where he also produces cut flowers, melons, and a variety of tree fruit destined for his wife’s jams.

Known as “Yolo Bulb,” Madison’s farm is located in the topsoil-rich Lower Putah Creek watershed, an ideal area for growing tree crops. Madison has a deep connection to this region, having grown up on his family’s small farm right across the creek from his current home. I got a chance to visit Yolo Bulb in mid-April, soon after he joined the South Berkeley Farmers’ Market. Spring is an “in-between” time for many growers as they wait for the right weather and soil conditions to work their fields and begin planting. As Madison said, “These soils in the valley-when they’re too dry you can’t work them, when they’re too wet you can’t work them, so there’s just a little window of time you can work your fields. And it usually lasts for about 45 minutes!”

Just that morning, Madison had taken advantage of one of those brief “45-minute” windows to mow down a cover crop of bell beans in what will soon be one of his flower fields. Though some fruit remained on his olive trees, the harvest was done for the season, and his oil was already processed and stored until next Fall, when the next crop will be ready for picking.

Madison has no formal training in farming. He described the process of creating his farm by saying, “I just made one blunder after another,” and he pointed out the sites of his failed forays into grape growing and Clementine production, both crops that have now been torn out. But his breadth of knowledge about plants and the natural world is deeper than his comments betray.

The son of a failed farmer-cum-U.C. Davis Agriculture professor, Madison said, “I worked on farms when I was a kid, so I did have that background. You know, back in the day when we still picked tomatoes by hand for processing, every kid I knew worked on a farm.” He went on to say, “I had the misfortune of being too clever in school, so I was sent to prep school in Massachusetts, and I went to Harvard after that. At Harvard I studied botany, and eventually ended up getting a Ph.D.” After school, Madison worked as a tropical botanist in South America for seven years before returning to his childhood stomping grounds in 1986 to try his hand at farming.

Olive Oil: The next big thing for California agriculture?

According to some, olive oil is poised to become the next big thing in the California agriculture industry. As Madison simply states, “The United States still imports 98% of its olive oil. So there is potential for huge expansion in the domestic market.” Of course, olives do best in a Mediterranean climate, making California the epicenter for this potential expansion.

Just last month, U.C. Davis released the second installment of their report, “Evaluation of Extra Virgin Olive Oil Sold in California.” The study was partially funded by the California Olive Oil Council (COOC), a trade and marketing association, in addition to two major California olive oil producers, Corto Olive Oil and California Olive Ranch. No surprise, the results of the study turned out to be favorable to the California olive oil industry. As the report states, “Our findings indicate that the quality level of the largest imported brand names is inconsistent at best,” throwing doubt on the consumer perception that imported, European olive oil is superior to domestic brands.

At the same time that advocacy groups like the COOC are building a market for California oil, big producers like California Olive Ranch have been utilizing a growing method known as “Super High Density” (SHD) to make olive growing more efficient, and therefore more competitive. Madison explained, “Almost all the acreage in California is going into dwarf olive trees that can be harvested mechanically. You can go to Trader Joe’s, and you can buy California Olive Ranch oil for $5.99, and it’s not bad! It’s a particular kind of olive oil.” Arbequina is the only olive variety that tolerates SHD growing methods, meaning that there is minimal variation in flavor.

Madison went on to say, “The way the [olive] industry is developing in Califonia is kind of a two-pronged thing.” In addition to large-scale SHD growers, California is also home to high-end producers who are, according to Madison, “trying to imitate the wine industry, thinking that olive oil is going to have all this cachet and romance.” He elaborated, “I’m kind of trying to hit somewhere in between, in that, I don’t like overpriced, overhyped food…but yet I can’t afford to sell my oil for $5.99 either because I’m not set up with that kind of capital-intensive and machine-intensive system. I have an expensive press and I have a lot of hours put into my farm.” And, he joked, “I try to pay myself four dollars an hour at least.”

For Madison, farmers’ markets have been an ideal outlet for this type of small-scale business. He said, “Farmers’ Markets are 80% of our sales. Talk about putting all your eggs in one basket – that’s basically our income!” Ever since starting his farm, Madison has sold his products at the Davis Farmers’ Market and through the Davis Food Co-op. Madison shared stories and anecdotes about his farmers’ market experiences in a wonderful book, Blithe Tomato: An insider’s wry look at farmers’ market society. This year, Madison will also be offering his olive oil, salt cured olives, and soaps at the South Berkeley Farmers’ Market every Tuesday.

Nuts and Bolts: How is Olive Oil Made?

In addition to being a skilled farmer, Madison also mills his own oil at his farm. Using materials reclaimed from non-operational barns in the area, Madison built a licensed processing facility to house the “Oliomatic 400.” This modern Italian olive mill enacts a series of four processes to extract oil.

After the olives come in from the field in plastic totes, they are poured into the mill where they first pass through a blower, which separates the leaves and branches from the fruit. Next, the fruit is washed and crushed, pits and all, as it passes through a set of rotating, serrated discs. The resulting mash is then funneled into a tank where it is stirred and heated to room temperature (78 degrees) to help the oil molecules “agglomerate,” or clump together. Finally, the mixture goes into a horizontal centrifuge, where the water and pomace are separated from the oil. After it has been extracted, the oil is stored in settling tanks for about one week to separate out some of the remaining sediment and make the final product less cloudy.

Interestingly, this type of mill obviates the need for the “first press” label often seen on olive oil bottles. Older machines use hydraulic presses as opposed to centrifuges to extract oil from the raw material, and the mixture of crushed olives often has to pass through the press multiple times before all of the oil can be extracted, a process which degrades the flavor and quality of the resulting product. Some processors even cook the oil or extract it with solvents, leading to oils that do not meet the stringent chemical standards set for “extra-virgin” status as established by organizations like the International Olive Oil Council.

The centrifuge on Madison’s Oliomatic 400 extracts oil very efficiently, and only requires one pass. At 55,000 Euro, this type of machine was a significant investment for a small farmer, not to mention the energy costs of running it. To offset some of these costs, Madison offers his services to press oil for about thirty other olive growers in his area. He has also invested in a photovoltaic system that now produces 80% of the electricity used on the farm for things like running machinery, operating the walk-in cooler, and pumping water from the well.

On the Farm: Growing Practices & Labor

Using solar energy is only one way in which Madison strives to close the loop and reduce off-farm inputs. Pomace, the waste produced from the olive milling process, is actually a nutrient rich material that Madison spreads in his olive orchard as fertilizer. Madison explained, “Olive oil is just carbon and hydrogen. So all the good stuff – the nitrogen and calcium – all that stuff is in the waste, and by putting the waste back in the orchard we’re essentially keeping the nutrients recycling in this place instead of exporting them every time we make olive oil.”

In contrast to the Arbequina orchards of SHD growers, Madison’s orchard includes 1500 trees in ten different varieties, from the unique California Mission olive, to Leccino, a classic cultivar for oil production. Madison always makes several straight varietal oils, and at least one blend. He says, “The blend is partly a question of working with what oil I have, and partly a question of balancing fruitiness, bitterness, and pungency to get a well-balanced oil.”

The flavor profile of olive oil is also affected by the ripeness of the olive at the time of extraction. Whereas young, green olives produce bitter or pungent oils, the riper black olives produce oil that is smooth and buttery. Madison encourages farmers’ market shoppers to taste before they buy, so that they can decide which flavors please their palettes best. Having a mixture of varieties in the orchard also encourages a better fruit set since the trees benefit from cross-pollination, while also reducing the likelihood of disease.

Madison’s healthy trees yield between 15-30 tons of olives per year, producing 700-1400 gallons of oil respectively. “Increasingly, I’m curing olives,” he said. “I’m picking green olives for fermenting in October, and I’m picking black olives for drying later in the year.” For now he is only bringing his intensely flavorful “Sun-Dried Olives” to market while he refines his fermentation techniques.

Amazingly, there is no hired labor at Yolo Bulb. Madison does all of the farming himself, and his wife, Diane, makes the jams they sell at market and runs the household. Madison said simply, “I like to work.” In his 2002 book, Walking the Flatlands, he goes even further by saying, “Labore orare est,” or, “To work is to pray.” Walking through his fields as he pointed out unique varieties of figs and apricots, hearing him tell the stories of the many local barns he tore down for lumber, and the evolution of the fields surrounding his property as they changed from tomatoes and wheat to plums and walnuts, then wandering down to a creek where Madison described the river otters and Chinook salmon that make this place their home, I got the sense that for Madison, work is life, and life is work. He possesses a curiosity about place that encompasses and goes beyond his farm, and suggests that for him, work and life are always tied together in his connection to this region.

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