By Denise Johnson
Olive Oil Times Contributor
Consolidation happens. As inevitable as time, efficiency rules the world. So most of us gather our necessities under 60-foot ceilings of “big-box” stores. These giant retailing machines can have their way with suppliers, demanding pricing that puts all but the most efficient out of contention.
Whether it’s Walmart, Amazon, Home Depot, Starbucks, Carrefour, Tesco, Metro AG or Coop Italia, chances are you spend a good part of your paycheck at a conglomerate instead of the independent corner store for the things you buy. If you don’t yet, you probably will, or your children will.
Is this a bad thing? Forget for a minute (cold as it is) about the livelihoods of the artisan baker, gourmet food distributor or small shopkeeper. Waste is waste. There’s no place in evolution for inefficiency, charming as it is sometimes.
And so it seems with the production of olive oil. At a time when the world’s biggest potential markets including the United States, China and India, are just waking to the advantages of using olive oil in their diets, agribusiness is refining new ways of producing high quality olive oil on a big-box scale.
For thousands of years, olive trees have been planted far apart (around 100 trees per acre), allowing them to stretch out wide and tall, before being harvested by hand. It would take many years before a good harvest was achieved. Once the trees were planted they stayed — many for a thousand years. In some countries their tender care is protected by law.
Now, the redundantly named Super High Density, or SHD, is all the rage. Conceived in Spain in 1990, SHD involves planting tight rows of trees as close as 5 feet apart while keeping their height to just 6 feet. An acre can hold more than 900 trees. After just a few years, mechanical harvesters can drive down the rows and strip away the olives to a conveyor that whisks them to a loader driving down the next row. Within just hours, before degradation can occur, the olives are milled in a state-of-the-art centrifuge system that can press 20,000 pounds of oil every hour before being bottled, boxed and palleted. Not a single olive is touched by hand.
SHD trees require irrigation due to their fast-paced lives and all that is expected of them. Each acre can produce more than 250 gallons of olive oil each year. This is good for sustainability. There are a lot of us trying to live on this blue ball, and every farming acre ought to be as productive as possible.
So what does this mean for the small olive oil makers? Just as big industrial wineries didn’t kill off the small estates, SHD will not do in the hand-harvesters. Like wine, olive oil shares a distinction as a product lots of people (and more each day) enjoy on a higher level than other commodities. Thanks to its complex character (which we explore in these pages) many of us want to know about varietals, terroir and provenance. It’s been this way for thousands of years. Not gonna change any time soon.
There’s no doubt that SHD is producing excellent olive oils earning acclaim from tasting panels worldwide. Olive oils from modern production is less susceptible to defects that can occur when fruit sits around before milling, or from the traditional mills themselves which can add unwanted flavors from old mats, and other organic matter. The proof is in the bottle. Try the highly decorated Olio Nuovo from California Olive Ranch, or Calivirgin from Coldani Olive Ranch to taste fresh and delicious extra virgin olive oils from modern high-density farms.
Is there an intangible quality in an olive from a 400-year-old tree? Does the stressed tree in a dry, traditional grove impart something more, like stressed vines do to their famous wines? Does the gentle trickle down from a traditional press leave the oil’s terroir more intact than the sterile journey through the stainless machines of a modern mill? Some people think so.
Gerard Vea Balona whose family makes olive oils in Spain’s Catalonia region by traditional means told me that while he knows high density is a necessary development in the olive oil industry, there are qualities and complexities that can only be found in old trees and with the loving care of each olive by the workers’ hands. Sipping his flagship Les Costes Arbeqina, I would have believed anything he said.