When life hands you olives, make olive oil

When life hands you olives, make olive oil

UC Davis is world renowned for its wine-making program. But what about its olive oil?

Each November and December, the 1,250 olive trees that line the campus are harvested by the UC Davis Olive Center at the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science to create extra virgin olive oil and table olives available for purchase at the UC Davis Bookstore.

What started as a way to help cover the cost of maintaining the olive trees has now developed into a university-based interdisciplinary research and education program.

In 2004, the university began producing and selling olive oil after losing $60,000 a year in legal fees regarding olive-related incidents. The Olive Center, the first research institute of its kind in North America, was launched in 2008.

The Olive Center prides itself on producing high-quality extra virgin olive oil and Sicilian-style table olives. These are sold exclusively at the UC Davis Bookstore for $12 a bottle and $7 a jar since the center does not want to compete with local olive oil producers.

The bookstore currently carries two blends: Gunrock and the Silo.

“They have different sensory profiles. The Gunrock is more intense,” said Dan Flynn, executive director of the Olive Center.

“Our clientele is mostly older adults and staff members,” said Jean Aguirre, the general merchandise manager at the UC Davis bookstore. “A lot of people who work on campus buy olive products for gifts. Students buy it for their parents and we also ship a lot of it across the country.”

The bookstore also carries UC Davis olive oil body products, such as lip balm and body butter.

The center collects about $100,000 per year in revenue from olive sales and the money goes toward funding the center’s research.

“We have produced as much as 600 gallons, and as little as 40,” Flynn said. “It depends upon the crop size and the effectiveness of our harvest equipment.”

For the past couple of years, Students for Sustainable Agriculture has organized a community olive harvest in November that allows students and community members to harvest the trees along Russell Blvd. The olives are collected, taken to Mike Madison’s Yolo Bulb Farm to press, and participants are able to pick up their own olive oil based on the amount of olives they picked the very same day.

“Unfortunately, there will not be a harvest due to the low yields this year compared to the record yields of last year,” said sophomore Gena Chen, a student organizer. “There just aren’t enough olives. We are hoping for next year, though.”

Chen believes the event helps bring students and families together to learn about the food system and to create a product they can be proud of.

“It’s a great way for people to become involved in the local food system and learn from beginning to end the beautiful process of olive oil making, but in a fun way,” Chen said.

Education is also something the Olive Center strives to promote. The center currently offers educational courses for members in the olive industry that teach techniques on growing and milling olives, the business of olive oil production and a sensory evaluation course.

“We would eventually like to establish an olive course for students,”  Flynn said.

Since its establishment, the center has succeeded in exposing quality problems with imported olive oils.

“Seventy percent of the oils imported did not meet the international standard for extra virgin olive oil,” Flynn said. “We’ve also worked with local olive producers to pass legislation establishing olive oil grade standards and we’ve established a sensory panel that’s been accredited by the International Olive Counsel.”

STEPHANIE B. NGUYEN can be reached at campus@theaggie.org.