At the mouth of the Kern River Canyon, in a relatively small corner of a legacy growing operation, sits one of Kern agriculture's most delicious ironies.
The organic olives Rio Bravo Ranch grows on 42 acres there have repeatedly cleaned up in statewide taste tests. Its coratina extra-virgin olive oil took best of show, among other top awards for the company, at the California Olive Oil Council's annual competition in March.
But at the same time RBR is setting quality standards in California, home to the vast majority of U.S. olive oil production, olive growing remains in sharp decline across Kern.
Olive groves took up just 401 acres countywide in 2017, the most recent year for which official data exist. Forty years earlier, olives accounted for 16 times that much land in Kern, county records show. North in Tulare County, which specializes in whole, canned olives, the crop spread across more than 10,000 acres in 2017.
There are several reasons for this apparent inconsistency, not the least of which are the profitability of competing favorites like almonds and table grapes, as well as the persistence of a fungus that has long bedeviled U.S. olive growers.
Some see Kern's downward trend in olive production as ripe for change.
Industry observers say U.S. demand for olive oil is way up in recent years, largely because of the product's health benefits as compared with other vegetable oils.
At the same time, extreme weather across Europe, which leads the world in olive-growing, has created an opening for other regions. And with the United States poised to impose a 100-percent tariff on European olive oil in retaliation for government subsidies of the continent's aerospace industry, expectations are rising that investors will turn to the Central Valley's Mediterranean climate for future olive production.
Reports have reached Brian Grant, Rio Bravo Ranch's chief operating officer, that a Portuguese olive-oil producer is looking to contract production from local growers. That could suggest European interests are considering investing in Central Valley olive-processing facilities, which are in short supply.
"I think growers, certainly in the San Joaquin Valley, should probably be having their ears to the ground and finding out about that opportunity," said Roland Fumasi, vice president and senior analyst at Rabo AgriFinance's RaboResearch Food and Agribusiness division.
Other factors closer to home also point to potential growth in local olive production. At a time when use of groundwater is being curtailed by the state, olives stand out as one of California's least water-intensive crops. Also, mandarins, a fruit that has soared in popularity during the last decade, are on the verge of overproduction in the Central Valley.
A big limiting factor is processing capacity. Olives must be squeezed to make oil, and most of the state's presses are either on the Central Coast or in Northern California.
Even olive canning plants are overworked lately after European interests bought a minority stake in privately held processor Bell-Carter Foods, prompting the company to offer a significant share of its Central Valley capacity to overseas olive producers.
All of this bodes well for Rio Bravo Ranch, which used to press its own oil but now contracts a mobile outfit from the coast to do the job on site. The process begins right after the harvest in October and takes about 10 days to finish, after which time the mobile operation packs up and leaves RBR to market its own label.
Olives are part of RBR's diversification strategy. The company grows almonds, cherries and citrus not far from its seven varieties of olives, which get turned into several kinds of oil, including infused olive oils. The company also farms alfalfa, almonds, cantaloupe, corn, cotton and tomatoes on property it owns further north in the valley.
Its products are sold locally at Dot x Ott, Sully's convenience stores and Vons, as well as restaurants such as Luigi's that buy it in bulk from RBR. The ranch has limited distribution in the Los Angeles area that it is trying to expand.
QUALITY OVER QUANTITY
Since olives were first introduced at Rio Bravo Ranch in about 2012, the focus has always been on quality, which in some ways puts it at a disadvantage in a marketplace that tends to compete on price alone.
Grant, the company's COO, likens the situation to wine: People stick to the cheap stuff until they experience the difference high quality can make.
"We would much rather be the Caymus than the Charles Shaw," he said, referring to popular wines at opposite ends of the price spectrum.
The company is bullish on olive oil much more than it is on whole, ripe olives, he noted. That said, he sees the whole crop increasing gradually in Kern County over the next few years.
"I think we'll see a slow, steady growth of olives," he said. "I don't think it will be like the almond industry that we have literally watched grow before our eyes."
FUN WITH OLIVES
Northwest Bakersfield resident Tim Escalante is hardly a serious olive farmer but he does have a dozen or so trees in his backyard that he says produce "very good" fruit.
Every year he invites over family and friends to help with the harvest. The result is enough olives to fill a 55-gallon drum, which he then cures and gives away.
He used to press the olives into oil but stopped after seeing how much work it is. One of his trees suffers from a fungus, likely verticillium, which afflicts olives as it does almonds and other crops. But as a hobby, he said, olives make a nice addition.
"It's just kind of a neat landscaping thing, I guess, and then we have fun with the olives at the end of the year," he said.