by Marc Flacks

In the olive groves of the Golden State

From Boom Winter 2014, Vol 4, No 4

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt of Marc Flacks’s essay “New Missionaries” from our Winter 2014 issue. 

The production of olive oil in California has deep roots. Generations of Californians have been seduced by olive trees and their promise of a liquid bonanza. California is now reported to be in the midst of an olive oil boom or a “liquid gold rush,” but in fact, the state is witnessing its third or fourth effort to establish a viable olive oil industry. The Spanish missionaries began producing olive oil in California around 1803. After that, Italian immigrants in the mid-nineteenth century started producing olive oil when their Gold Rush dreams failed to pan out, and in the twentieth century, entrepreneurs tried to compete against the dominant European olive oil industry.

As this Mission olive tree on the State Capitol grounds grew over the past century, the tags bent and were embedded in its trunk.

Even though California olive oil represents only a tiny fraction of today’s world market, the state may be poised to become a major global player because of the creative efforts of family-run agribusinesses, legislation aimed at defining high quality, “extra virgin” oil, and the implementation of a relatively new high-density growing method imported from Spain. Every new attempt to cultivate this industry in the Golden State has been accompanied by new myths about olive trees and the natural suitability of California for producing the golden oil. As something of an insider to the industry and an academic researcher, and therefore something of an outsider too, I’ve been curious about the people at the forefront of this potential boom and the new myths they are creating.

My own olive oil journey began by accident in Santa Barbara, where I grew up. When I rode my bike or moped down Olive Street on my way to Santa Barbara High School, my tires would slide perilously when braking, and I would wonder why the city allowed all the fruit from the olive trees lining the road to drop and grease the street, instead of harvesting them and putting them to good use. Then, when I moved to the Sacramento area in 2007 to begin teaching sociology at Yuba College, I read in the Sacramento Bee that University of California, Davis, having settled too many suits filed by bicyclists injured in accidents caused by oil from fallen olives, decided to harvest their trees and ultimately establish the UC Davis Olive Center, transforming a liability into an asset. Yuba College, it turns out, sits on the site of an old olive grove and, when I noticed a feral grove near campus, I obtained permission to hold a volunteer community olive harvest there and began establishing 49er Olive Oil, a nonprofit olive oil venture.

My self-appointed olive oil mission has been not only to get 49er Olive Oil up and running, but to immerse myself in the world of California olive oil and to try to grasp its significance in sociological, historical, geographical, and mythical terms. Traversing a California divided into familiar binaries such as Northern/Southern, coastal/inland, organic/conventional, liberal/conservative, urban/rural, government/industry, profit/nonprofit, etc. I’ve talked with many of today’s olive oil missionaries to better understand the ideals, goals, and strategies they hope this time will avoid the industry busts of the past.

Santa Barbara’s Old Missions

Because my curiosity about California olive oil began in Santa Barbara, I started my exploration there.

There is an old myth that California’s first olive tree was planted by Father Junipero Serra in 1769, the year that the governor of Baja and Alta California, Gaspar de Portolá, led an expedition to San Diego to establish the first of California’s twenty-one missions. Aside from shade and food, Spanish missionaries needed olive oil for sacramental purposes. Although the actual historical record of olive propagation and Spanish conquest diverges from myth—there is no reliable evidence that Serra planted the first tree—the evidence that olive trees and their fruit were central to the lives and work of Spanish missionaries is still visible up and down the state.

In partnership with the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation, Santa Barbara’s Old Mission has planted a new olive grove called Stations of the Cross Olive Garden Path. The grove is meant to serve multiple purposes, including providing revenue to the mission and the trust through olive oil sales, providing shade, connecting visitors to biblical history, and simply providing a place for quiet contemplation.

The trust has also partnered with Mission Santa Inés to grow olive trees and involve citizen volunteers in helping to produce nonprofit olive oil. They are hoping to gain state park status for a historic grist and mill, and they are creating new opportunities for visitors to gain hands-on understanding of California history.

Olivos Del Mar

Sample products from the Makela family’s Olivos Del Mar company.

Over the coastal range from Santa Ynez, near Refugio Canyon, is the Makela family spread. The Makelas trace their heritage back to the original Spanish settlers in Santa Barbara and acknowledge that, while planting avocados would probably be more profitable, they consider olives to be their family tradition and legacy. A sign hanging above the entrance to their offices reads, “100 years and 9 generations of Santa Barbara tradition in every product.”

The Makela family’s work blends historical preservation and innovation. Craig Makela, past president of the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation, led the planting of olive trees at the Old Missions in Santa Barbara and Santa Ynez. He also has helped plant olive trees to support the nonprofit mission of the Young America Foundation, which now operates the Ronald Reagan ranch, situated in Refugio Canyon in the mountains overlooking the Makelas’ olive ranch.

Aside from the “social entrepreneurship” of planting olive trees to help nonprofit organizations, though, the Makelas are energetic businesspeople. They recently received a patent for Oleavicin, a lip balm made from olive leaves.

Rancho Olivos

Shannon Casey and John Copeland operate all aspects of their olive venture, Rancho Olivos, from planting the trees to selling the oil—and with it, a promise of a Californian lifestyle.

Their mission goes beyond earning money and includes protecting the environment. In planting their orchard, they were careful to plant around existing oak trees, even dead ones. They also see their work as connecting to their community’s history. Antique items are repurposed—for example, an old carriage that was once used for house calls by the country doctor of Los Olivos and is now a sign holder at their farm stand.

Los Olivos, in the Santa Ynez Valley in North Santa Barbara County, was once heavily planted with olive groves, but today there are only a handful of small operations, hoping to capitalize on the winery “agritourism” that has thrived in that region at least since the release of the movie Sideways. As a product, olive oil promises a whiff of the Mediterranean dolce vita that blends labor with leisure. Casey and Copeland are particularly proud of their oil infused with Meyer lemons. They live, work, and play at their olive ranch, and they sell visitors an entire California lifestyle with every bottle of olive oil.

The cemetery at Mission Santa Inés is shaded by historic Mission Olive trees.

Dan Flynn and Selina Wang in the Olive Center’s lab at UC Davis.

The grove at Rancho Olivos is planted around old oak trees.

On the California Olive Ranch bottling line.

CEO of California Olive Ranch Greg Kelley.


All photographs by the author.

Posted by Boom California