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Donations Help Fund Research and Award-Winning Production at UC Davis

Recent donations have allowed the leading U.S. olive oil research center to invest in new equipment, expand their olive groves and improve production.

Firmin Berta donated $200,000 to the Olive Center. His brother left an additional $550,000 for the organization in his estate
Jul. 23, 2019
By Daniel Dawson
Firmin Berta donated $200,000 to the Olive Center. His brother left an additional $550,000 for the organization in his estate

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Two recent dona­tions have helped turn 2019 into a very good year for the University of California, Davis Olive Center.

“We’ve never been stronger,” Dan Flynn, the center’s exec­u­tive direc­tor, told Olive Oil Times.

The Olive Center has received $750,000 from Fermin and Irvin Berta, a pair of broth­ers. Fermin Berta grad­u­ated from UC Davis in 1957 and told Flynn that he wanted to give back to the uni­ver­sity that gave him so much.

The United States has never been in a posi­tion to be able to pro­duce research on olive oil at this level ever in its his­tory.- Dan Flynn, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Olive Center

“Firmin has donated $200,000 to us and his brother Irvin, who died in 2017, pro­vided the Olive Center with $550,000,” Flynn said.

“Their sup­port has allowed us to upgrade our research lab­o­ra­tory, recruit top grad­u­ate stu­dents, expand research orchards and upgrade olive oil stor­age capac­ity,” he added. “We recently received uni­ver­sity approval to name our research lab­o­ra­tory for Firmin and Irvin Berta.”

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The Olive Center is cur­rently in the process of plant­ing five acres of super high-den­sity (SHD) olive groves that will be used to con­duct research as well as pro­duce olive oil, which is sold on the uni­ver­sity campus and helps to fund the center.

See more: Olive Center News

While Arbequina, Arbosana and Koroneiki (the three most common SHD vari­eties) have been planted, some other exper­i­men­tal hybrids are also being cul­ti­vated. One of these is the Chiquitita, which is a cross between Arbequina and Picual.

“Then there are two other vari­eties that are also crosses that we are going to be col­lect­ing data on as the orchard matures,” Flynn said.

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Researchers at the center will soon be study­ing the “archi­tec­ture of the tree,” or which parts of the tree are the most pro­duc­tive in terms of output as well as phe­no­lic con­tent.

Funds from the dona­tions have also been used to main­tain the exist­ing orchards and help the Olive Center improve the qual­ity of the olive oil that it is cur­rently pro­duc­ing. Efforts such as these have been par­tially attrib­uted to the Olive Center’s two Gold awards at this year’s edi­tion of the NYIOOC World Olive Oil Competition.

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“It’s the first time that we’ve sub­mit­ted oils to the NYIOOC,” Flynn said. “In fact, this year we sub­mit­ted to a com­pe­ti­tion for the first time any­where.”

“We were able to buy smaller stain­less steel tanks, in which we were able to keep smaller batches and this gave us more pre­ci­sion in our blend­ing,” he added. “[Berta] was also able to help us fund some prun­ing, which helped us to main­tain the qual­ity of the fruit and get more fruit off the tree.”

The Olive Center has also used some of the money to pur­chase new equip­ment for its lab­o­ra­tory and is pro­vid­ing more money for grad­u­ate fel­low­ships, which Flynn said has helped the center to do more research.

“We’re at the point where Selina [Wang, the center’s research direc­tor] is co-author­ing a paper that is get­ting pub­lished once a month on aver­age, so the clip of research pro­duc­tiv­ity has increased,” Flynn said.

“These papers usu­ally start quite some­time before they are pub­lished so that is an indi­ca­tor that for the last few years, we’ve been work­ing at a very high level of effi­ciency, even though we are a self-sup­ported center, to pro­duce a lot of output,” he added. “The United States has never been in a posi­tion to be able to pro­duce research on olive oil at this level ever in its his­tory.”

Among the numer­ous pieces of research that UC Davis is under­tak­ing, is look­ing at the mul­ti­ple vari­ables involved in pro­cess­ing olives into olive oil and trying to opti­mize cer­tain inputs in order to get the max­i­mum pos­si­ble output.

The research is being con­ducted by Juan Polari, a Fulbright Scholar from Argentina who is receiv­ing his PhD from UC Davis. Funding from the Bertas’ dona­tion made recruit­ing high-cal­iber intel­lec­tu­als, such as Polari, pos­si­ble.

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“In a lot of the research in this area, they might look at one vari­able, say the crusher or the malaxer, but what Juan’s research is doing is look­ing at mul­ti­ple vari­ables and how they inter­act with one another,” Flynn said.

“So, for exam­ple, look­ing at the crusher speed with the grid size in the crusher, along with malax­a­tion time and tem­per­a­ture,” he added. “When you start com­bin­ing these crit­i­cal aspects of the process, you are able to get deeper insights into what can be done to increase phe­no­lic con­tent and get a better yield.”

It is this kind of research that Flynn believes will help to improve the American olive sector. New research find­ings will also be part of the cur­ricu­lum for the Olive Center’s annual master miller course, which is taking place from September 23 to 25 at the Robert Mondavi Institute.

As it always does, the course will also cover the inter­na­tional olive oil indus­try, olive oil chem­istry and har­vest­ing and milling best prac­tices.

Registration is open until September 20 and the price of the event is $875 from now until August 9, when it increases to $1,075.

“We have the great­est milling course on the planet,” Flynn said. “What makes this course unique is that it is grounded in sci­ence, as well as hands-on pro­duc­tion at a real olive oil pro­cess­ing plant.”

A survey of atten­dees admin­is­tered by the Olive Center found that 90 per­cent of respon­dents believed that the course mate­r­ial helped improve their qual­ity and effi­ciency. Another 72 per­cent of respon­dents said that because of the course they were “highly likely” to increase their prof­itabil­ity.

Leandro Ravetti, an agri­cul­tural engi­neer and tech­ni­cal direc­tor at Modern Olives, Flynn and Wang will instruct the course, which has had hun­dreds of atten­dees over the years.

“I think it is that com­bi­na­tion of sci­en­tific ground­ing as well as prac­ti­cal appli­ca­tion and acces­si­ble lan­guage that the course is pre­sented in that make it the best in the world,” Flynn said.

By the end of the course, Flynn and the Olive Center will be look­ing ahead to the next har­vest in late October and early November, with the goal of con­tin­u­ing the Olive Center’s win­ning streak.