By Lorrie Baumann
Australia’s leading olive oil producer, Boundary Bend Olives, had been in California just long enough to get stationery printed with its address at a former John Deere dealership in Woodland, California, about 20 miles northwest of Sacramento, before the company started winning awards for its California oils at the New York International Olive Oil Competition. The April 15 competition drew nearly 700 olive oils from 25 countries for judging by an international panel of experts, and Boundary Bend took home four NYIOOC awards for Cobram Estate oils produced from California olives as well as five awards for oils produced in Australia.
Cobram Estate Ultra Premium Picual, a medium picual oil from the U.S., won a NYIOOC Silver. Cobram Estate Super Premium Robust Blend, which combines leading varieties from California and Australia for a blend with a cut green grass nose, a strong spicy aroma and complex fruit flavors, earned a NYIOOC Gold Award. Cobram Estate Super Premium Medium Blend took home a NYIOOC Gold Award for appealing fresh fruity aromas and penetrating flavors, and Cobram Estate Ultra Premium Mission, from olives ultra cold-pressed within four hours of picking, received a NYIOOC Silver Award. The company’s NYIOOC awards for Australian oils included two Best in Class Awards for Cobram Estate Ultra Premium Hojiblanca and Cobram Estate Super Premium Premiere, a Robust Blend oil that also won a Best in Class Award in 2014; Cobram Estate Robust Flavour Intensity, a full-bodied blend from Australia that was pressed within six hours of picking, which won a Silver Award; Cobram Estate Classic Flavour, a medium blend from Australia also pressed within six hours, which won a Gold Award and Cobram Estate Ultra Premium Picual, which was ultra cold-pressed within four hours of picking and won a Silver Award in both 2015 and 2014.
Boundary Bend Co-founder and Executive Chairman Rob McGavin announced the company’s plan to expand its operations to the United States in May, 2014, and in January of this year announced that it had set up operations on eight acres near Woodland, California under the guidance of fifth-generation California farmer Adam Engelhardt, formerly of California Olive Ranch, and now CEO of Boundary Bend’s U.S. operations. The company had a small crush last October using another company’s plant for trial runs with small batches of oil. Boundary Bend plans to be in commercial production in California this calendar year. “We do plan to plant our own groves. We’ve got the trees for the plantings ready and are assessing suitable land and expect to have that in process within the next year,” McGavin said. “We’re just waiting for all the balls to line up.”
The company is eager to enter the American market because the country’s olive oil consumption is quite high, but domestic production is quite low, McGavin said. The U.S. is the fourth-largest consumer of olive oil globally, with consumption growing spectacularly over the past 25 years from a bit more than 100,000 metric tons per year in 1990 to the current figure of almost 300,000 metric tons per year, according to the International Olive Council. Per capita consumption in the United States is only 0.9 kg, which is comparable to per capita consumption in the U.K. and Germany, and the vast majority of that is imported, with only 3.8 percent of the olive oil consumed in the U.S. produced domestically. “Consumption of U.S.-produced oil is growing but is limited by supply,” McGavin wrote in a May 2014 letter to Boundary Bend stockholders in which he announced the plan to expand to the U.S.
Boundary Bend Olives, founded in 1998 by college buddies McGavin and Paul Riordan, currently sells more olive oil in Australia than anyone else, and its Australia production, from its own groves in the Murray Valley region of Victoria, is greater than the entire volume of olive oil currently produced in the U.S. “We’ve grown from nothing 10 years ago to the number-one selling brand in Australia,” McGavin said. To his stockholders, he wrote that, “We believe we can replicate, in the USA, the success of our Australian integrated business, but we will be taking a conservative, long-term approach to our business strategy.”
Boundary Bend is starting up agricultural operations in California at a time when the state is in the midst of a historic drought. Agricultural economist Richard Howitt and others from the University of California, Davis and ERA Economics reported to the California Department of Food and Agriculture in May of this year that following three critically dry years, many irrigation districts had exhausted their surface water reserves and the groundwater table had been drawn down in many parts of the Central Valley. The economists estimated that this year’s drought, coming on top of the three previous drought years, will result in the fallowing of about 564,000 acres and an $856 million reduction in gross crop farm revenues across the state. About 18,600 full-time, part-time and seasonal jobs may be lost this year, and the total economic loss to California’s agriculture industry is estimated to be $2.7 billion.
None of that scares McGavin one whit. “We know it’s going to be difficult. It’s never, ever easy, but if we do it in a methodical way not to sound arrogant, but we are confident that what worked in Australia’s severe drought conditions will work in California,” he said.
He points out that he and his company have had some experience with drought in Australia. “We had the most awful drought. The scientists were calling it a thousand-year drought, and it went on for seven years,” he said. During the drought, the farmers at Boundary Bend learned how to monitor the water needs of their trees through telemetry-equipped sensors that monitor the percolation of irrigation water through the ground to the tree roots. They learned when the trees needed to be irrigated and when they could stay dry and still survive, thus minimizing the amount of irrigation necessary. “Olives really came into their own in Australia during the drought, and having that experience is something that we can bring to the U.S.,” McGavin said. He added that the experience in the best watering practices to make olive trees thrive on the least possible amount of water was a painful lesson, but he thinks that his neighboring California olive tree farmers will be eager to see how Boundary Bend does it, and that will be beneficial for California agriculture in the long run.
In addition, olive trees require half the irrigation water of nut trees, so replacing some of the nut trees currently growing in California’s Central Valley with olive trees will save water too, he said. “Being able to plant twice the area of olives versus nut tree crops for the same amount of water is a good use of the water,” he said.
When it has secured the land, Boundary Bend will plant the olive trees much less densely than the typical California super high-density planting. While Boundary Bend’s groves will have fewer trees planted per acre, the overall yield of olive oil per acre will be similar because the trees will grow bigger. They’ll also be more drought-tolerant.
The trees will be a mix of varietals rather than the Arbequina monocrop that’s typical in California. This will result in extra-virgin olive oils with outstanding shelf life, better health benefits and complex flavor profiles as well as lowering the risk of crop failure, McGavin said. A good Arbequina oil has a shelf life of 18 months if it’s stored properly, while other oils, such as the Coratina variety originating in southern Italy, can last on the shelf for up to three years because they contain more antioxidants. Those antioxidants are also credited with some of the health benefits of extra-virgin olive oils. “A mix of olives extends the harvest and offers different flavor profiles,” McGavin said. Stretching out the harvest allows the olives to be picked at optimum ripeness and rushed to the mill for pressing within hours. The precise timing of the harvest and the speed of that processing is important in the protection of the volatile components of the oils. What makes a good extra-virgin olive oil is the minor components and how fresh they are and how much is expressed in the oil to contribute to flavor as well as health benefits, according to McGavin. “We think it works well here [in Australia], and we think it’ll work well in the USA, and we’re really excited about coming over and bringing it to American consumers,” he said. “A really important part of our strategy is to introduce the varieties that we grow in Australia and our way of growing them – different varieties of olives that give greater complexity to the oil.”
“We’re all a bunch of farmers,” he added. “Our company stands by farmers. We’re farmers, and today we own 2.5 million trees on our own land, and the reason we’re successful is that we love what we do and have a brilliant product.”