I don't know much about the industry, but I have my doubts that the grower interest in olives has much to do with it being "water sipping" and I'm not sure that there are tremendous water gains to be had here compared to nuts and grapes. I suspect a lot of the interest is driven by the mechanical harvesting innovation, and a desire for an alternative to planting even more almonds and grapes. [Update: I am told olives require 2 feet of irrigation water compared to 3 to 4 feet for most Valley crops. I still don't think water is the primary motivation, but if water prices were higher and transfers more common, olives would look even more attractive.]
Whatever the reason, I look forward to enjoying high quality, local olive oils that I can afford. I saw a great presentation from Corto Olive here in San Joaquin County, and have bought the Sacramento Valley based California Olive Ranch products in the grocery before. I think those are the two biggest operations now, and it will be interesting to see how many more enter the market over time.
In the past 10 years, roughly 7.5 million trees have been tightly planted on 12,500 acres, an experiment growers hope will make California olive oil cheaper and fresher than that of their competitors. State officials estimate that in another decade there will be 100,000 acres of hedgerow trees producing 20 million gallons of oil to help sate Americans' 75 million gallons-a-year thirst — 99.99 percent of it now imported.
"There's a promising future ahead for this crop," says Dan Flynn, head of the Olive Research Center at UC-Davis. "With the growth in olive plantings, California could emerge as a world leader in a relatively short period of time. It might take 20 years, but that's how long it took with the other crops."
The "other crops" are almonds and canning tomatoes, once the domain of Spain and Italy but now controlled by California growers, who have the economic advantage of producing on large-scale farms.
California's oil boom results from a convergence of events that coincided with the new plantings: a chronic drought prompting farmers to seek water-sipping crops, consumers' shift toward fresh foods, their focus on heart-healthy oils, and recent findings that some oil imported as "extra virgin" might be of a lesser quality — if it's olive oil at all.