Kern County Producer Reflects on The California Olive Oil Industry

Stefanie Wickensheimer explains how Rio Bravo Ranch crafts high-quality extra virgin olive oil in the southern San Joaquin Valley.

The central California producer earned two Gold Awards and a Silver Award at the 2024 NYIOOC World Olive Oil Competition. (Photo: Rio Bravo Ranch)
By Daniel Dawson
Jun. 10, 2024 22:28 UTC
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The central California producer earned two Gold Awards and a Silver Award at the 2024 NYIOOC World Olive Oil Competition. (Photo: Rio Bravo Ranch)

From cat­tle to olives, the fam­ily behind Rio Bravo Ranch has been a fix­ture of Kern County agri­cul­ture for the past seven gen­er­a­tions.

The ranch sprawls over 3,200 hectares out­side Bakersfield, about 165 kilo­me­ters north of Los Angeles, with 18.5 hectares of cer­ti­fied organic olive groves.

I think we are start­ing to see more cus­tomers pri­or­i­tiz­ing their health and look­ing at the prod­ucts they con­sume.- Stefanie Wickensheimer, project direc­tor, Rio Bravo Ranch

“[The Nickel family’s] ties to agri­cul­ture started seven gen­er­a­tions ago with Henry Miller, known as The Cattle King,’ which is who our Miller’s Reserve Blend was named after,” said Stefanie Wickensheimer, the exec­u­tive assis­tant and project direc­tor at Rio Bravo Ranch.

Today, the Nickel fam­ily farms toma­toes, corn, cot­ton, almonds, mel­ons, cit­rus and olives,” she added. The sig­nif­i­cance and rea­son behind plant­ing olives for oil pro­duc­tion was to pro­duce and pack­age a prod­uct with the company’s name on it. It is the only crop we con­trol from the field to the end user.”

See Also:Producer Profiles

The olives, mostly Picual, Coratina and Frantoio, with small quan­ti­ties of Pendolino, Ascolana, Nocellara del Belice and Maurino, were planted in 2010, with the first har­vest in 2015. From the out­set, the com­pany decided to pur­sue qual­ity over quan­tity.

This approach has been val­i­dated at the NYIOOC World Olive Oil Competition, the world’s largest olive oil qual­ity con­test. Over the past two years, Rio Bravo Ranch has been awarded for each of its three extra vir­gin olive oil brands: a mono­va­ri­etal Picual and Coratina and the Miller’s Reserve Blend com­pris­ing both vari­eties.

profiles-the-best-olive-oils-production-north-america-kern-county-producer-reflects-on-the-california-olive-oil-industry-olive-oil-times

The company’s 18.5 hectares of organic olive groves are in the southern San Joaquin Valley. (Photo: Rio Bravo Ranch)

What we aim for every year is cre­at­ing a high-qual­ity prod­uct, and win­ning those awards shows that we are con­tin­u­ing to do that year after year,” Wickensheimer said.

Along with con­trol­ling each step of the pro­duc­tion process, the com­pany achieves its qual­ity goals by start­ing the har­vest in mid-October.

That tends to be the sweet spot,” Wickensheimer said. Not all of the olives have matured at that point, but we would rather har­vest olives on the greener side than too ripe. We opt for higher qual­ity and higher polyphe­nol olive oil.”

Testing done at the end of sum­mer and the begin­ning of autumn deter­mines the exact date of the har­vest. It’s not per­fect, but we pick a date, stick with it, and we’re okay if our yield isn’t as high as long as we have the qual­ity,” Wickensheimer said.

The tim­ing of the har­vest, which lasts from one to two weeks, usu­ally coin­cides with the end of the pis­ta­chio har­vest, so Rio Bravo Ranch con­tracts the same com­pany to do both and avoids the prob­lem of find­ing work­ers.

profiles-the-best-olive-oils-production-north-america-kern-county-producer-reflects-on-the-california-olive-oil-industry-olive-oil-times

Rio Bravo Ranch starts its olive harvest in mid-October, usually right after the pistachio harvest is completed. (Photo: Rio Bravo Ranch)

Since we mechan­i­cally har­vest with a pis­ta­chio shaker, har­vest is never per­fect,” Wickensheimer said. We can only do the best we can and shake as much crop off the trees as pos­si­ble. That being said, we didn’t run into too many issues dur­ing har­vest.”

Rio Bravo Ranch does not have a ded­i­cated mill; it has hired a mobile mill to come to the groves since 2016.

Wickensheimer said this helps Rio Bravo Ranch over­come the most sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenge they face most years – high tem­per­a­tures – by allow­ing them to coor­di­nate with the pick­ers how many bins to har­vest each morn­ing before the mill arrives.

She added that the mobile mill pro­vides plenty of advan­tages. It cuts down the haul­ing fees,” she said, elim­i­nat­ing wait­ing times between the har­vest and the trans­for­ma­tion of the olives into olive oil.

profiles-the-best-olive-oils-production-north-america-kern-county-producer-reflects-on-the-california-olive-oil-industry-olive-oil-times

Rio Bravo Ranch contracts with a mobile mill, lowering costs to transport the olives and decreasing the time between harvest and transformation. (Photo: Rio Bravo Ranch)

The biggest chal­lenge we have to deal with through­out the year is the heat,” Wickensheimer said. We have to keep an eye on irri­ga­tion.”

While the area has enjoyed some wet hydro­log­i­cal years (from July to June), Wickensheimer said the com­pany irri­gates its olives from a ded­i­cated reser­voir at spe­cific moments to max­i­mize qual­ity.

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There are times when you have to irri­gate more,” she said and other times when Rio Bravo Ranch stops irri­gat­ing to stress the trees a bit. When you stress the trees in the sum­mer, you must watch them to ensure they are not over­stressed,” Wickensheimer added.

Along with the chal­lenges, the high tem­per­a­tures also pro­vide some advan­tages. We don’t have a lot of issues with the olive fruit fly,” Wickensheimer said. They don’t seem to do well in the high tem­per­a­tures. That’s one advan­tage of hav­ing the heat.”

So far, the sit­u­a­tion in the olive grove is look­ing good for the 2024/25 crop year. The trees are look­ing good,” she said. The trees were in full bloom a month ago and have fruit bud­ding already… but it’s still a lit­tle early to see how much crop we’re actu­ally going to get.”

See Also:Rio Bravo Ranch Win 3 Awards at 2024 NYIOOC

Now, the com­pany is hop­ing for some con­sis­tent tem­per­a­tures through­out the sum­mer, fol­lowed by cooler weather in September, to max­i­mize their yield.

Once the olive oil is pro­duced in the mill, it is pack­aged in larger drums or SpaceKraft card­board totes, sim­i­lar to bag-in-box con­tain­ers, depend­ing on the quan­tity. These are stored in a refrig­er­ated build­ing behind the office.

What we like about those is the lin­ers are vac­uum sealed, where they go down with the oil and don’t allow a whole lot of oxy­gen to get in, which is great,” Wickensheimer said.

Another advan­tage is that they can be shipped to cus­tomers eas­ily since they are square and rel­a­tively light­weight.

Rio Bravo Ranch sells its olive oil mostly online, at some local farm­ers mar­kets and arti­sanal food stores in Bakersfield. It also pro­vides olive oil for the pri­vate labels of a local restau­rant and San Francisco-based food shop.

profiles-the-best-olive-oils-production-north-america-kern-county-producer-reflects-on-the-california-olive-oil-industry-olive-oil-times

Rio Bravo Ranch produces Picual and Coratina monovarietals and a blend. (Photo: Rio Bravo Ranch)

Wickensheimer, who keeps a close eye on California extra vir­gin olive oil prices, said this mar­ket seg­ment has been largely unaf­fected by his­tor­i­cally high prices at ori­gin in Spain and the rest of Europe.

Even with the higher prices in Europe, it’s still cheaper than what California olive oil is going for,” she said.

Wickensheimer attrib­uted higher prices in California to increased pro­duc­tion costs. We’re see­ing a rapid increase in the cost of farm­ing,” she said. That’s just how it is right now. It’s unfor­tu­nate, but we have to raise our prices a lit­tle bit to cover those increases.”

Despite hav­ing to raise prices, Wickensheimer has not seen much of an impact on demand.

I think we are start­ing to see more cus­tomers pri­or­i­tiz­ing their health and look­ing at the prod­ucts they con­sume,” she said. Because of this, we haven’t seen a drop in sales even when we have to increase our prices slightly to keep up with our higher costs.”

profiles-the-best-olive-oils-production-north-america-kern-county-producer-reflects-on-the-california-olive-oil-industry-olive-oil-times

So far, the company anticipates another good harvest in the 2024/25 crop year but said it is still too early to tell how much fruit will be produced. (Photo: Rio Bravo Ranch)

We have seen more inter­est in our gal­lon (3.8 liters) option, which can be the most eco­nom­i­cal option based on usage,” Wickensheimer added.

Another con­sump­tion trend Wickensheimer has seen over the years is the role of fla­vored olive oils as a gate­way into the bor­der cat­e­gory for new con­sumers.

When peo­ple start to get their foot in the door, they tend to start with infused olive oils and work their way up to using plain extra vir­gin olive oil,” she said.

Wickensheimer added that not every­one wants to drink a spoon­ful of extra vir­gin olive oil to expe­ri­ence its fla­vors.

Some peo­ple turn their noses up when try­ing it with bread,” she said. But hav­ing the infused olive oil has def­i­nitely helped because peo­ple are more will­ing to try it if it’s a fla­vor they like.”

It’s a way for them to start to incor­po­rate olive oil into their diet because many peo­ple don’t real­ize that what­ever you use but­ter or veg­etable oil for, you can pretty much use olive oil for,” Wickensheimer con­cluded.


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