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
7K reads
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.

See Also:Producer Profiles

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.


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.


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.”


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.


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.


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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