On a bright, crisp November morning, Myrna Meisler thrusts her arms deep into an olive tree, stripping small, oval purple-black fruit off of silvery green boughs with quick yet careful strokes.
Dropping the olives into the 18-pound plastic bucket strapped across her shoulders, she describes the annual ritual of the harvest. She and fellow pickers — including her husband, Richard, her son Glenn Covert and his 11-year-old daughter, Kendal — examine the fruit for cracks, bruises and signs of fruit fly infestation, picking out leaves and stems before pouring olives into 1,000-pound bins.
Those olives are transported to a local mill to be made into San Miguel Olive Farm extra virgin olive oil.
“It’s the most exciting day of the year,” Myrna Meisler said.
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About 1,300 acres in San Luis Obispo County are dedicated to olive production, according to Brenda Ouwerkerk, chief deputy agriculture commissioner for the county Department of Agriculture.
The 70 to 80 local growers range from small-time producers such as the Meislers, who grow five Tuscan varieties of olives on their 14-acre San Miguel property, to relatively large operations such as Mt. Olive Organic Farm and Pasolivo in Paso Robles, which boast their own tasting rooms and olive mills.
Although Ouwerkerk wouldn’t disclose the collective value of the county’s olive crop, local growers say the current retail value of bulk olive oil is about $80 per gallon. Bottled, it’s worth $100 to $120 per gallon.
“Within my lifetime, olives will be (among) the top 20 cash crops” in the county, said Art Kishiyama, owner of Olio Nuevo in Paso Robles and president of the trade organization Central Coast Olive Growers. “Our priority is to make the Central Coast as known for its olive oil as it’s become known for its wine.”
Olives in demand
According to Tom Mueller, author of “Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil,” olives have been a sought-after crop since ancient times.
“Olive oil entered its golden age with the Greeks,” Mueller writes; they used it “as food, fuel, skin lotion, contraceptive, detergent, preservative, pesticide, perfume and adornment.”
Medieval apothecaries prescribed olive oil as medicine. Renaissance craftsmen used it in soap-making and yarn manufacturing. And churches across the globe still employ the green-gold liquid in religious rituals.
Today, olive oil is touted for its health benefits as a beauty aid and cooking ingredient that’s rich in antioxidants, polyphenols and monounsaturated fatty acids.
“It’s all kinds of healthy,” grower Richard Meisler said.
Few places have greater respect for olives than California, where Spanish missionaries introduced the fruit in the late 18th century. The California Olive Oil Council, founded in 1992, has more than 400 members — including growers, producers, service providers and retailers — representing 90 percent of all olive oil production in the state.
Although olive growers have been active in San Luis Obispo County for at least 15 years, Kishiyama said there’s been a boom in production since he and his wife, artist Lynn Kishiyama, moved to Paso Robles in 2002.
Central Coast Olive Growers has about 65 members. Established roughly three years ago, the group promotes its products through events such as the Paso Robles Olive Festival, which celebrates its 10th anniversary in August.
“We have very few lifetime farmers in this group. Nearly everyone is coming from somewhere else,” said Kishiyama, a San Luis Obispo High School and Cal Poly graduate who spent 26 years in the U.S. Air Force and 15 years building Disney theme parks and attractions before turning his attention to olives and alpacas.
In addition to their ranch, Alpacas of Cripple Creek, the Kishiyamas grow about 3,700 Spanish varietal olive trees on 19 acres, producing two award-winning extra virgin olive blends and an Italian-made, estate-bottled balsamic vinegar under the Olio Nuevo label.
New York transplant Richard Meisler and his California-born wife also adopted olive farming as a second career. Before moving to San Miguel from Ventura County in 1999, the two spent decades working in the music industry — he as a band leader and entertainment agency owner, she as a music store manager.
The couple credits Myrna Meisler’s uncle, a former prune farmer, with persuading them to try agriculture. In 2007, they planted 160 trees, adding 800 in 2011.
Although the Meislers have only been producing olive oil for three years — olive trees take four to five years to produce fruit — their efforts are already paying off.
Their Tuscan Varietals blend won Best in Show in the “small production” category of the California Olive Oil Council’s 2012 extra virgin olive oil competition. It also won silver medals at the Los Angeles International Extra Virgin Olive Oil Competition in 2011 and 2012.
Richard Meisler has equally high hopes for November’s harvest — 3,200 pounds of olives processed into 62 gallons by Templeton’s Mill on Wheels.
He views his olive orchard as his legacy. “When I leave this world, these trees will be there for all time,” he said.
Robbie and Patti Robbins, owners of Robbins Family Farm in San Luis Obispo, developed an interest in olives during their 1972 honeymoon in Spain. But it took more than 25 years for the native New Yorkers to realize their dream.
Robbie Robbins, who earned dental and medical degrees at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., operated a head-and-neck cancer surgery practice in Atlanta between 1982 and 1994 before moving his family to the Central Coast.
In 1998, Robbins attended a California Olive Oil Council class and ended up buying two gallons of olive oil and 50 trees, which the family planted the following spring.
“It’s all been trial and error” since then, said Robbins, who has honed his craft through trips to Italy in 2004 and 2005 and Israel and Jordan in 2010.
In addition to its own 3,600-tree orchard in Nipomo, which produced 1,200 gallons of oil in 2012, Robbins Family Farm manages olive trees on 18 properties in the East and West Edna Ranch neighborhoods of San Luis Obispo, helping the owners plant, farm and harvest olive trees. They mill the olives at Foxdale Farm in Templeton.
“What the orchard gives you at the end of the season is what you blend,” explained Robbins, who grows Italian, Spanish and Californian varietals.
Robbins Family Farm produces four olive oils — Ascolano, Tuscan Blend, Eve’s Mandarin Blend and Jesse’s Harmony Blend — and four balsamic vinegars imported from Modena, Italy, all featuring Patti Robbins’ paintings on their labels.
Robbie Robbins is working with Terry Speizer, former owner of Domaine Alfred Winery in San Luis Obispo, on two Edna Valley agriculture projects: a high-yield olive orchard and a truffle farm. If all goes as planned, the 400 live oak saplings they planted a year ago could produce truffles in a decade.
The Robbinses aren’t the only ones thinking outside the box.
Kevin and Paula Jussila, founders of Kukkula winery in Adelaida, are among the handful of local vintners who have embraced the “natural marriage between grapes and olives.” According to Kevin Jussila, San Luis Obispo County’s limestone-laden clay soil, warm dry days and cool nights make it ideal for both vineyards and olive orchards.
When the Jussilas purchased their Chimney Rock property in 2004, it featured 75 acres of mature walnut trees and slightly more than an acre of wine grapes. Today, the farm features 19 acres of vines and eight acres of olive trees, mostly French varietals.
Kukkula’s first olive harvest in 2010 yielded three tons of fruit, or 137 gallons of oil.
“People are really reacting well to our olive oil,” said Jussila, noting that Kukkula sells about 80 percent of its oil through its tasting room. There are plans to produce dipping oils, flavored oils and tapenades in the future.
“Anyone that’s really into great food and wine is going to typically be someone who likes consuming boutique olive oil,” said Jussila, who’s also a financial adviser for Merrill Lynch. “If you brand yourself and you bring in really cool farm products — whether it’s grapes or olives or walnuts — it’s all additive to the profitability of the business.”
Selling a pure product
Although Central Coast olive growers cope with the same problems as other farmers — disease, pests, harsh weather — they agree their biggest challenge is selling their product.
“As small producers, we can’t compete on price,” Kishiyama said. “We need to educate American consumers (about) why they should pay 200 to 400 percent more (for our products) than what they can buy in the grocery store.”
Supporting his argument is Consumer Reports’ discovery in September that many of the big olive oil importers — such as Bertolli and Filippo Berio — don’t taste good enough to be considered “extra virgin,” a term referring to oil made from crushed olives without the use of high heat or chemical solvents.
As Mueller explains in “Extra Virginity,” unscrupulous producers have been passing off substandard oil as the real thing for decades — committing food fraud by coloring canola oil with industrial chlorophyll, cutting quality oil with cheaper substitutes and using deodorization to remove unpleasant odors and flavors.
Labeling can also be deceptive, his book notes, as oil advertised as “packed in Italy” often features fruit picked in Greece, Spain, Tunisia and elsewhere.
According to Robbie Robbins, customers should have no qualms about buying Central Coast olive oil.
“The quality of our oil is the best in the world. We’re the definition of extra virgin,” he said. “What’s spectacular is the amount of small growers we have now and the quality of oil they’re producing. The number of awards in this county is mind-boggling.”