Meet the Native American Tribe Behind Award-Winning Olive Oil

Over two decades, Jim Etters has helped guide the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation’s Séka Hills brand to four NYIOOC triumphs while focusing on sustainability.

Harvesting high-density groves in the Capay Valley (Photo: Séka Hills)
By Daniel Dawson
May. 16, 2023 16:48 UTC
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Harvesting high-density groves in the Capay Valley (Photo: Séka Hills)

The first time I tasted fresh olive oil, it was like a life-chang­ing expe­ri­ence,” Jim Etters, the direc­tor of land man­age­ment at Séka Hills, told Olive Oil Times.

Etters has been the mas­ter­mind behind the olive oil pro­duc­tion of the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, a fed­er­ally-rec­og­nized Native American tribe located in the Capay Valley, west of Sacramento, California, from the begin­ning.

For sure, the tribal cit­i­zens use more (extra vir­gin olive) oil now than ever before. They get excited about the new har­vest and the Olio Nuovo.”- Jim Etters, direc­tor of land man­age­ment, Séka Hills

Etters’ and the tribe’s efforts yielded a Silver Award for a medium-inten­sity Arbequina at the 2023 NYIOOC World Olive Oil Competition. Since 2018, the tribe has won four awards at the world’s most pres­ti­gious olive oil qual­ity con­test.

Etters attrib­uted the company’s suc­cess to his first tast­ing expe­ri­ence and the tribe’s decades-long learn­ing process and empha­sis on sus­tain­abil­ity that has always guided its agri­cul­tural prac­tices.

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I started with Yocha Dehe in 2003 and have had the great oppor­tu­nity to work with the tribal coun­cil to help them build their agri­cul­tural enter­prises from scratch,” he said. When I started with Yocha Dehe, they only owned about 1,000 acres (400 hectares) of land other than the reser­va­tion, where they live.”

This land was mostly being leased out to ten­ant farm­ers, but as the tribe acquired more land over the next few years, they started to make more sense to farm the land them­selves.

It started to make more eco­nomic sense to farm the land as far as get­ting to a scale to invest in equip­ment and man­power,” Etters said. But also, the tribe wanted to have con­trol over how their lands were being cared for.”

When you have a ten­ant farmer on a year-to-year lease, they take what they can get from the land with­out putting a lot back, so we started farm­ing com­pletely in-house in 2006,” he added.

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After planting staples, the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation expanded with higher value crops, including olives and grapes.

The tribe began its agri­cul­tural ini­tia­tives by farm­ing wheat, alfalfa, sun­flower and saf­flower crops before diver­si­fy­ing into higher-value crops.

Shortly after, the tribe acquired 36 hectares of undu­lat­ing land near Guinda. Due to the ter­rain, the qual­ity of the soil and the lim­ited avail­abil­ity of water from the well, the tribe decided to plant olives and see how they fared.

At the time, there were only a few bou­tique olive oil pro­duc­ers in west­ern Yolo County, but they were pro­duc­ing some high-qual­ity olive oil,” Etters said. I knew through my research that our cli­mate here in west­ern Yolo County is very well suited to grow­ing olives.”

Initially, the tribe planned to sell the olives to a local buyer, but as the region’s rep­u­ta­tion for qual­ity grew, it decided to build its Séka Hills brand.

The tribal coun­cil, which is made up of five elected tribal cit­i­zens, was very involved in this plan­ning process,” Etters said. They thought that because of issues that we’d had his­tor­i­cally here with drought and the heat, olives were just the right choice.”

As a result, the tribe planted 33 hectares of olive groves in 2008. However, they quickly encoun­tered their first set of obsta­cles: the near­est mills were 1.5 hours north in Corning or closer to two hours south in Stockton.

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The tribe built its own mill to produce high-quality extra virgin olive oil.

The pro­duc­tion chain then started to look increas­ingly con­vo­luted, with the tribe hav­ing to drive the olives to be milled, then move the oil to another facil­ity to be bot­tled and then another facil­ity to be stored until it could be sold.

I took this infor­ma­tion to the tribal coun­cil, and they said, why don’t we just look at build­ing our own mill,” Etters said. We com­pleted con­struc­tion and were ready to process our first olives in the fall of 2012.”

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In those early days, we wanted to prove to the tribe first that we could make high qual­ity, true extra vir­gin olive oil, and sec­ond that we could sell it all,” he added. And we’ve done that every year.”

To make the har­vest as effi­cient as pos­si­ble, the tribe started by plant­ing super-high-den­sity olive groves, defined as more than 800 trees per hectare.

In the early 2000s, super-high-den­sity was still rel­a­tively new in California, but it was some­thing that peo­ple were doing,” Etters said. We always wanted to be doing a mech­a­nized har­vest. We never wanted to be hand har­vest­ing, so we started in the super-high-den­sity world.”

However, Etters and the tribe soon dis­cov­ered the lim­i­ta­tions of super-high den­sity and wanted to expand beyond the Arbequina, Arbosana and Koroneiki trees they planted.

I wanted to dif­fer­en­ti­ate us in the mar­ket­place again, so we decided to plant our first medium-den­sity trees about eight years ago,” he said.

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Etters attributes the Mediterranean climate of the Capay Valley to Séka Hills’ success.

These trees were also planted and pruned to be eas­ily har­vested by machines, allow­ing the tribe to cul­ti­vate more olive vari­eties.

I think it’s been, it’s been pretty suc­cess­ful now,” Etters said. We also offer Frantoio to Taggiasca, Picual and Cortina to our cus­tomers, all as sin­gle vari­etal offer­ings.”

Etters admits that while he is uno­rig­i­nal, he com­pares olive oil to wine. The rea­son why the tribe focuses on mono­va­ri­etals is that he wants con­sumers to iden­tify which olive oils work best for spe­cific dishes and buy as many dif­fer­ent types as they need to accom­plish their culi­nary goals.

The one blend released by the tribe each year is a very demo­c­ra­tic process, accord­ing to Etters. The tribal millers make small batches of four blends each sea­son and allow tribal cit­i­zens to taste them all before vot­ing on which one becomes the offi­cial tribal blend, which is then made in larger quan­ti­ties and sold.

Etters said the abil­ity of the tribe to have this fun and demo­c­ra­tic process to decide on the blend is a direct result of the tribe’s grow­ing olive oil cul­ture.

For sure, the tribal cit­i­zens use more oil now than ever before,” he said. They get excited about the new har­vest and the Olio Nuovo.”

Over the past decade, Etters said the tribe had learned a lot about olive grow­ing and olive oil pro­duc­tion. While Etters said their orig­i­nal instinct about the Mediterranean-like cli­mate of the Capay Valley was cor­rect, they faced a steep learn­ing curve on plenty of other sides of olive farm­ing.

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Etters hopes for a frutiful havrest in 2023 after a disappointing yield last season.

We learned how to man­age our inven­tory for alter­nat­ing crops – big years ver­sus small years – as far as our pro­duc­tion goes,” he said.

The tribe can now bal­ance how much olive oil they have in their inven­tory to meet com­mit­ments to sell to retail­ers and in bulk to food ser­vice.

Then this past year, we learned the chal­lenges of hav­ing a major freeze at a time that hurt the crop,” Etters said. We always con­tinue to learn and try new things. I think that’s helped us along the way.”

He attrib­uted the tribe’s suc­cess to its prox­im­ity to the Olive Center at the University of California-Davis, which he praised for its efforts to edu­cate the tribe’s farm­ers and millers.

While it is still too early to fore­cast how the 2023 har­vest will evolve, Etters hopes it will be bet­ter than the pre­vi­ous one, where the com­pany pro­duced between 25 and 50 per­cent less olive oil than usual.

We’re about a week to 10 days late on what would his­tor­i­cally be our bloom period, but the amount of buds on the trees is really good,” he said. We’re hope­ful that we have a good crop set and that it’s a bumper crop for us here in 2023.”


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