From the Farm to the Table

The California Olive Committee is comprised of two canneries and thousands of family farmers, who raise olives on about 27,000 acres of orchards that crisscross the warm inland valleys of California.

California produces over 95% of the olives grown in the US--but that doesn't mean we're all big business.  Ours are not mechanically run, industrial farms, but multi-generational orchards powered by hardworking American farmers and their families. Plots come in all sizes and they are individually serviced by some of the finest stewards of our land. They range from small 5-acre lots to 1,000-acre multi-crop farms, but strict growing and handling standards remain consistent.There are two main varieties of trees that produce our olives: Manzanillo and Sevillano. These different varieties produce different sizes of olives, giving consumers a choice ranging from small to super colossal.

Olive trees are by nature an alternate bearing fruit. (In other words, they produce a big crop one year and a smaller one the next.) This means the harvest can vary from under 50,000 tons one year to over 160,000 the next. The trees generally bloom in May, with small cream-colored flowers blossoming all over the orchards. This is the first indicator of what the fall harvest will be like. The olives grow and start to ripen throughout the entire summer. The harvesting begins while the olives are still green, but starting to show a little darkening color.

Harvest season generally starts in September and goes into November. To assure absolute quality, harvesting is done by hand. The crews use ladders to reach the fruit and painstakingly hand-harvest the olives off each branch, tree by tree. There can be 1,000 olives on each tree, so each crewmember will pick only 2 or 3 trees in a day. Once the trees are picked, the olives are sent to one of California's two olive processing plants. (Which, by the way, are also multigenerational family businesses.) At the plants, the olives are sorted, graded and stored until they are ready for curing.

Curing is essential to the process because olives straight off the tree are much too bitter to eat. While there are many different curing methods used around the world, in California, most olives become California black ripe olives, which are prized for their firm texture and smooth, mellow taste.

The method of processing California Black Ripe Olives was invented by a housewife in the late 1800s and that same recipe is followed today. It is a multiple-day process that starts by putting the olives into a lye curing solution that leaches the bitterness out. This is followed by a series of cold-water rinses, which removes every trace of curing solution. During the multi-day curing process, pure air is bubbled constantly through the olives. This air is what creates their natural, rich dark color. A trace of organic iron salt (ferrous gluconate) is sometimes added, which acts as a color fixer so the olives will maintain their rich black color after the cans are stored.

Canning is the final step. Ripe olives are canned in a mild salt brine solution and, because they are a low-acid product, are heat sterilized under strict California State health rules. In addition, they are inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to ensure consistent quality, color, flavor and texture. California Ripe Olives are offered in a variety of convenient options including: whole, pitted, sliced, chopped or wedged. They are readily available year round in the grocery store.

If you want to see what California Olives look like in their natural environment, just take a trip to California's central valley, where live trees span the state from North to South. Tulare County in the central San Joaquin Valley has over 56% of olive acreage. There you'll find growers like Sally Campbell overseeing her trees with the help of her miniature horses. Further north, Sacramento, Glenn, Tehama and Butte counties grow about 36% of an annual crop. This is where you may run into people like Ed Curiel, who, along side his family ,has literally spent his life working in the field. Kings, Kern, Fresno and Madera Countries account for about 9% of any harvest.

Olive Canners

There are two Olive Canners in California. Both are multi-generational family businesses.

Bell-Carter Foods, Inc. / Lindsay Olives
3742 Mt. Diablo Blvd.
Lafayette, CA 94549
Contact: Andal Allison
Phone: (925) 299-5030

Musco Family Olive Co.
17950 Via Nicolo
Tracy, CA 95377-9767
Contact: Dan Kelly
Phone: 866-965-4837