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Davis, California

Thursday, April 18, 2024

For the love of olives


Yolo Press family farm provides Davis with quality products for over 20 years

Just 20 minutes west of Davis is a thriving grove of olive trees symbolizing one family’s agricultural and professional success.

Davis native Mike Madison and his wife Dianne originally bought the land for their farming operation in 1984 and now sell homemade organic jams, soaps, skincare products and olive oil at the Davis Farmers Market and Davis Food Co-op.

The Madisons wanted to grow something that did not require bees for pollination, was drought-tolerant and was resistant to pests. They decided on olive trees, and now Mike hand-harvests all 1700 of these olive trees himself.

“We have olive varieties from Spain, Italy, Greece, France and California which all produce different flavors of oil,” Mike Madison said. “I’ll harvest less-ripe olives around this time to make a very pungent, strong robust oil, like Italians prefer, [but] the French like theirs to taste like butter so they wait [to harvest] until January it’s just a question of style.”

Immediately after the harvest, Mike brings the olives into a processing room where they get washed and ground up. This olive “mash” then goes into a bigger machine and is stirred very slowly so that the microscopic drops of oil start to clump together and is heated so that the fats completely liquify. A centrifuge then separates the material into three parts: water, solid and oil. Mike then transports the oil to a separate settling tank and leaves it alone for about three days.

The process of turning the fruit into oil is detailed and time consuming, but it is meticulous for a reason.

“We package in dark green glass from Italy […] because olive oil has high sensitivity to light,” Mike said. “If you go to Safeway and see [cheap] olive oil in a clear, plastic bottle […] it’s probably just 10 year old rancid oil [that was] distilled with solvents to remove the rancid taste.”

Dianne explained that, because of the oil’s sensitivity, Mike mills everything within 24 hours of harvesting so that the oil does not go rancid. The Madisons are not only concerned with producing quality olive oil, but also with keeping their environmental impact as low as possible by implementing sustainable practices.

“The water and solids from the olive processing get pumped out of the building and I spread them back into the orchard to be reincorporated into the soil,” Mike said. “All of the nutrients are in the waste, so by putting them back we’re basically maintaining soil fertility in the orchard.”

In addition to what Dianne calls their “liquid fertilizer,” Yolo Press is constantly exploring ways to be as environmentally sound as possible, such as using recyclable packaging. The Madisons do not grow plants that require large amounts of tractor work, decreasing the amount of carbon dioxide the farm releases into the atmosphere. The farm also has solar panels that power the irrigation system in the orchard, and Mike and Dianne give customers rebates for bringing back their empty bottles after use.

“We use no pesticides and no commercial fertilizers, and as a crop, olives are much more benign than others because they require less water,” Mike said. “We proudly irrigate less than most people in the Sacramento Valley [and since] we have our own processing plant, we’re not having to haul olives 200 miles [away] to get them processed [off the farm].”

In addition to the heart-healthy perks of whole olives, Yolo Press also uses its unique oils in its soaps and skin products for the antioxidant qualities and benefits as a soothing skin conditioner.

Dianne and the couple’s two daughters also started D. Madison & Daughters, the label under which they sell about 20 different types of jam. When the farm had too much tree fruit that they could not sell, Dianne continued her family’s tradition of canning fig, apricot and blackberry jams.

“People really like the olive oil the best, but I think the fact that that we have a very diverse line of products on our table [at the farmers market in Davis] appeals to a wide customer base,” Dianne said.

Despite the fact that Yolo Press does not advertise or have its own shop, its popularity with the Davis community does not falter. The business is favored among a handful of university faculty members, especially Frances Dolan, a professor of English. Dolan stops by the Yolo Press table every Saturday morning at the market to pick up olive oil and skincare products for herself and friends.

“Buying food from a supermarket doesn’t require the same thinking about where your food comes from or how sustainably it’s grown,” Dolan said. “Because of relationships like the one I have with the Madisons, there’s a responsibility to go out to the market and keep those [vendors] coming.”

Dolan and her husband are more than just customers of Yolo Press. They have developed a close friendship with the Madisons and appreciate their dedication to fresh, local olive oil. By coming to the market every week and sharing stories with Dianne, Dolan feels that she knows much more about where she lives and what she eats.

“[Mike and Dianne] are always thinking about [sustainability] issues and […] I’m constantly learning from them,” Dolan said. ”It’s wonderful to buy their olive oil, but I’m getting a lot more from them than that; I’m getting an education and a relationship.”

For the Madison family, customers like Dolan make the labor and dedication to the science of making quality olive oil worth the effort.

“Our business plan is [to] make our local product here and sell it in the town we’ve been in forever,” Mike said. “We’re embedded in this particular community and that’s how it works for us.”

Written by: Gillian Allen — features@theaggie.org


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