Corto Bets on Olives as Crop of The Future in Changing Sacramento Valley

As California deals with the impacts of climate change, rising labor costs and worker shortages, Corto Olive president Cliff Little believes planting more olives is a solution.
(Photo: Corto Olive)
By Thomas Sechehaye
Jan. 2, 2024 19:31 UTC

Despite all the chal­lenges, Cliff Little is bull­ish on the future of California olive oil pro­duc­tion.

Little is the pres­i­dent of Corto Olive, the sec­ond-largest pro­ducer in the United States. The com­pany pri­mar­ily grows Arbequina, Arbosana, and Koroneiki olives in the Sacramento Valley at super-high den­sity, and it also buys olives from other California pro­duc­ers.

Minimal labor, water and fer­til­izer require­ments, ver­sus crops that have been tra­di­tion­ally farmed in California, along with the olive trees’ abil­ity to sequester car­bon, make farm­ing olives for olive oil the California crop of the future.- Cliff Little, pres­i­dent, Corto Olive

He told Olive Oil Times that cli­mate change and evolv­ing con­sumer tastes make olive oil an increas­ingly viable crop in the Golden State.

Corto’s founders saw high-effi­ciency olive orchards as a way to not only pro­duce the fresh­est olive oil, due to the speed at which the olives can be har­vested and milled but also as an oppor­tu­nity to keep farm­ing in California due to the low level of inputs needed,” Little told Olive Oil Times.

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Due to the inven­tion of super-high-den­sity olive farm­ing and the advance­ments in milling tech­nol­ogy over the last five years, we can now pro­duce extra vir­gin olive oil at scale… when the olives are at their peak of fla­vor and fresh­ness,” Little added.

Traditional California crops require more labor, water and fer­til­izer than super-high-den­sity olive groves demand. According to some esti­mates, olives use up to 50 per­cent less water than other Sacramento Valley crops, such as wal­nuts, almonds and pis­ta­chios.

Minimal labor, water and fer­til­izer require­ments, ver­sus crops that have been tra­di­tion­ally farmed in California, along with the olive trees’ abil­ity to sequester car­bon, make farm­ing olives for olive oil the California crop of the future,” Little said.

Part of the poten­tial for olive farm­ing in California is the abil­ity to cre­ate a cir­cu­lar econ­omy where the vast major­ity of the waste pro­duced in the process can be reused, reduc­ing costs and improv­ing sus­tain­abil­ity.

Without tak­ing the proper steps to limit the envi­ron­men­tal impact of our milling, stor­age, pack­ag­ing and dis­tri­b­u­tion sys­tems, we would be ignor­ing the incred­i­ble poten­tial for cre­at­ing a cir­cu­lar econ­omy in olive oil and pro­mot­ing it as one of the health­i­est and most sus­tain­able food prod­ucts that exist,” Little said.


Corto Olive harvests just as the olives turn from green to violet, at the peak of their ripeness. (Photo: Alexander Rubin)

Corto har­vests its olives early in the autumn using over-the-row har­vesters to remove olives from the branch at the peak of ripeness, just as they turn from green to vio­let. The olives are trans­ported to the company’s mod­ern mill within hours of har­vest­ing.

The olives are stored in a cli­mate-con­trolled cel­lar until cus­tomer orders are processed. The result­ing extra vir­gin olive oil is pack­aged directly from the cel­lar in bag-in-box pack­ag­ing and dark-glass bot­tles.

Little said the spe­cially designed pack­ages pro­tect the oil and ensure fresh­ness by min­i­miz­ing harm­ful expo­sure to light, air and heat.

To bet­ter track and improve sus­tain­abil­ity, the com­pany is begin­ning to col­lect data that will allow them to make tar­geted inter­ven­tions to become greener and more effi­cient. We are still early in col­lect­ing data that will help us to quan­tify the pos­i­tive envi­ron­men­tal impacts of our olive oil pro­duc­tion,” Little said.

Research from other coun­tries shows the envi­ron­men­tal ben­e­fit of olive farm­ing and pro­duc­tion, but we want to fully under­stand the pos­i­tive impli­ca­tions that farm­ing olives for olive oil will have for California farm­ers and proces­sors,” he added.


Over-the-row harvesting requires fewer workers when farm hands are increasingly difficult to hire. (Photo: Alexander Rubin)

Along with the poten­tial envi­ron­men­tal ben­e­fits, Little reit­er­ated that olives are a low-labor crop, an increas­ingly impor­tant issue in a state where sea­sonal work­ers can be hard to find.

He also pointed out that the over­all sector’s car­bon foot­print can con­tinue to be low­ered by expand­ing domes­tic pro­duc­tion and cut­ting down on car­bon-emit­ting imports.


While bring­ing olive oil to the U.S. from Europe, North Africa and South America emits plenty of car­bon diox­ide – ship­ping accounts for three per­cent of global car­bon diox­ide emis­sions – research from the University of Jaén, the International Olive Council and Juan Vilar Strategic Consultants all con­firm that olive groves of all types suc­cess­fully sequester car­bon diox­ide, though to vary­ing degrees.

The 2016 IOC study indi­cated that a hectare of olive groves can­cels out one person’s annual car­bon foot­print.

The research also found that pro­duc­ing one liter of olive oil cap­tures 10.64 kilo­grams of atmos­pheric car­bon diox­ide. Further, the world’s pro­duc­tion of olive oil could absorb the emis­sions of a city of more than seven mil­lion inhab­i­tants.

However, research from the University of Jaén found that tra­di­tional olive groves sequester sig­nif­i­cantly more car­bon diox­ide than super-high-den­sity groves.

Still, in its 2023 annual impact report, California Olive Ranch, the largest olive oil pro­ducer in the U.S., reported that its super-high-den­sity groves are a net car­bon sink, seques­ter­ing more car­bon diox­ide than the process of grow­ing, har­vest­ing and milling the olives emit.

Along with the crop’s ben­e­fits to California’s cli­mate, Little said the organolep­tic and health ben­e­fits of extra vir­gin olive oil had caught U.S. con­sumers’ atten­tion.

We are con­fi­dent that once con­sumers in the U.S. have the abil­ity to expe­ri­ence fresh, fall-har­vested olive oil and under­stand why the fresh­ness of their oil is so impor­tant to not only the qual­ity of the dishes that they cre­ate but also their health, it will be a very hard deci­sion to buy any­thing else,” Little said.

Little described the Covid-19 pan­demic as a water­shed moment for olive oil con­sump­tion in the U.S., with more con­sumers learn­ing to cook with olive oil at home and com­ing to value extra vir­gin olive oil despite ris­ing prices.

We saw a big spike in sales dur­ing the pan­demic, and that’s remained steady since,” Little told Olive Oil Times in a sep­a­rate 2022 inter­view.

Little believes that con­sumers have become more edu­cated about extra vir­gin olive oil in recent years and are now less will­ing to sub­sti­tute it with lower-qual­ity olive oil or other types of edi­ble oils. Consumption fig­ures in the coun­try sup­port his the­ory.

While he acknowl­edged the impor­tance of e‑commerce for olive oil sales, Little said the company’s pri­mary focus is sell­ing to restau­rants and the food ser­vice indus­try.

To that end, win­ning awards, such as the Silver Award earned by Corto Olive at the 2023 NYIOOC World Olive Oil Competition for its medium-inten­sity Koroneiki, helped the com­pany bur­nish its rep­u­ta­tion as a reli­able and high-qual­ity sup­plier.


Corto Olive is the second-largest olive oil producer in the United States. (Photo: Alexander Rubin)

Corto Olive also works to stand out in the com­pet­i­tive food ser­vice mar­ket by infus­ing its extra vir­gin olive oil with other fresh California fla­vors to pro­duce a range of fla­vored olive oils.

The company’s Agrumato-Method was inspired by the Corto family’s Nonno Amerigo and his child­hood mem­o­ries of olive har­vest­ing in Italy.

The process involves crush­ing and cold-extract­ing olives simul­ta­ne­ously with fresh sea­sonal ingre­di­ents grown in California, includ­ing chili, lemon­grass and basil.

Looking ahead, Little plans to con­tinue expand­ing Corto’s oper­a­tions, bet­ting that olives will con­tinue to thrive in California and olive oil cul­ture will expand in the U.S.

I think olives are suited well for the long term,” Little said. We’re still actively look­ing for grow­ers to plant and adding more acres our­selves. We’re still very hope­ful for the future.”


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