Olive Center’s New Director Begins Planning for The Future of California Olive Oil

Javier Fernandez-Salvador has plenty of plans for his new job including optimizing olive growing and harvesting for California’s changing climate.
Javier Fernandez-Salvador. Photo: Hector Amezcua, UC Davis
Aug. 24, 2021
Daniel Dawson

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I think there is a promis­ing future for olive oil,” Javier Fernandez-Salvador told Olive Oil Times.

The recently appointed exec­u­tive direc­tor of the University of California-Davis Olive Center has had a busy few months since tak­ing the reins of North America’s lead­ing olive oil research insti­tu­tion.

Drought is here, it is going to be immi­nent, the cli­mate is going to be warmer, and we need to be able to adapt. Research needs to lead the way.- Javier Fernandez-Salvador, exec­u­tive direc­tor, UC Davis Olive Center

I saw the move to UC Davis as the next log­i­cal step in my career,” he said. It is a priv­i­lege to be work­ing at the best agri­cul­tural uni­ver­sity in the world with an incred­i­ble group of peo­ple.”

See Also: A Third of The Best American Olive Oils Come from This California Region

Before becom­ing the center’s sec­ond-ever exec­u­tive direc­tor – tak­ing over from Dan Flynn who announced last year that he would be leav­ing the Olive Center after found­ing the influ­en­tial insti­tu­tion 12 years before – Fernandez-Salvador headed up the Olea project, which focussed on pro­mot­ing olive cul­ti­va­tion and research in Oregon.

Since mak­ing the move 680 kilo­me­ters south from Corvallis to Davis in June, Fernandez-Salvador has already started to meet some of the stake­hold­ers and work on new projects.

Among them is renew­ing the focus of the Olive Center on its own olive oil pro­duc­tion. Fernandez-Salvador said he wants to involve under­grad­u­ate stu­dents in the pro­duc­tion process and con­tinue pro­duc­ing high-qual­ity oils from the university’s groves.

I’m hop­ing to enter some of our oils into com­pe­ti­tions this year,” he said. We pro­duce award-win­ning oils already, and the cen­ter has a mature medium-den­sity orchard that has been har­vested and used to pro­duce UC Davis olive oil.”

It’s been a pro­duc­tive orchard that I’m start­ing to prune and man­age for con­tin­ued future growth. I want to keep using the orchard, which is planted in a more tra­di­tional sys­tem,” Fernandez-Salvador added. But we also received some fund­ing from indus­try, and they are col­lab­o­rat­ing with us to plant some super-high-den­sity trees.”

Fernandez-Salvador plans to use the high-den­sity groves to pro­duce olive oil using cur­rent indus­try best prac­tices and to exper­i­ment as well.

The idea is that we will start to man­age the orchard mechan­i­cally like the indus­try does and… have it avail­able to con­duct future projects,” he said. I am already talk­ing to some peo­ple about doing some canopy man­age­ment and prun­ing sys­tems research. That will be some­thing that is inter­est­ing to do in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the stu­dents that we get for our upcom­ing intern­ship pro­gram.”

Having stu­dents run the uni­ver­sity olive groves, con­duct exper­i­ments and pro­duce the olive oil that is then sold in cam­pus stores is part of Fernandez-Salvador’s plans for the cen­ter.

One of my goals for next year is to start a new intern­ship pro­gram sup­ported by indus­try to train stu­dents who are inter­ested in work­ing with olives to become future man­agers,” he said.

Fernandez-Salvador is work­ing to cul­ti­vate farm­ers who approach olive grow­ing and pro­duc­tion with a sci­en­tific mind­set. He believes this will fur­ther help the state’s indus­try.

Not only will the stu­dents learn how to make these orchards pro­duc­tive, but also how to do the research, how to take data, do the analy­ses and set up exper­i­ments,” he said. So when they take on a new posi­tion once they grad­u­ate, they can bring that advan­tage to the indus­try.”

Fernandez-Salvador added that this is already a trend in California, with larger oper­a­tions bring­ing in farm man­agers who have been for­mally trained in research and exper­i­men­tal design. However, he wants to start this process from a younger age.

Among the exper­i­ments that Fernandez-Salvador hopes to run in the university’s olive groves is test­ing dif­fer­ent irri­ga­tion man­age­ment tech­niques, which will become increas­ingly nec­es­sary as California becomes hot­ter and drier.

We need to update our stan­dards, and I am glad to be a col­lab­o­ra­tor there,” he said. We are look­ing at effi­cient water use to main­tain pro­duc­tiv­ity and be able to man­age water resources bet­ter.”

Along with improv­ing water man­age­ment, Fernandez-Salvador also wants to test nutri­ent deliv­ery sys­tems to effi­ciently deliver every­thing the trees need to grow and pro­duce con­sis­tent yields.

I think both of those have a bright future, and we can start becom­ing more effi­cient at it, main­tain­ing pro­duc­tiv­ity and crop sus­tain­abil­ity with the [afore­men­tioned] chal­lenges,” he said. Drought is here, it is going to be immi­nent, the cli­mate is going to be warmer, and we need to be able to adapt. Research needs to lead the way.”

Fernandez-Salvador also sees research as the key to mak­ing California’s grow­ers and pro­duc­ers more com­pet­i­tive, from exper­i­ment­ing with dif­fer­ent vari­eties to see which ones grow best in high-den­sity and super-high-den­sity groves to eval­u­at­ing how the lat­est gene-edit­ing tech­nolo­gies may be used to improve olives.

There is some inter­est in dis­cussing edit­ing of the olive genome to work on a cou­ple of issues that some grow­ers con­sider very impor­tant,” he said.

While Fernandez-Salvador is not involved with gene-edit­ing, he said his role is to work as a facil­i­ta­tor, con­nect­ing the inter­ested par­ties in the indus­try with the appro­pri­ate researchers and experts.

One of my roles is to be the liai­son,” he said. Hearing the indus­try and their pri­or­i­ties and being able to bring the researchers and stake­hold­ers together, so there con­tin­ues to be this really good com­bi­na­tion of strengths.”

However, Fernandez-Salvador is still learn­ing exactly what all these strengths are. Moving from Oregon to California has been a con­sid­er­able shift in scale.

Olive oil pro­duc­tion is min­i­mal in Oregon – the state’s largest pro­ducer yielded 15,000 liters in 2020, much of which included California-grown olives. Meanwhile, 14 pro­duc­ers exceed 22,700 liters each year in California and the state is pre­dicted to pro­duce about 87 mil­lion liters in 2021.

It’s like going from the minor leagues to play­ing for a major league base­ball team,” he said. We have pro­duc­tion in other states, but noth­ing like California. This required me to start from the very basic level of meet­ing and get­ting to know all the indus­try mem­bers.”

It will be fan­tas­tic to be able to assist every part of the indus­try,” he con­cluded. That is our mis­sion.”


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