Olives and olive oil are cherished in modern culture for their flavor and abundant health benefits. They are also a fruit of history, usually associated with Mediterranean countries. Held sacred in ancient mythology and religious texts, olive oil was used to anoint Greek kings thousands of years ago. Lesser known is the role of the olive in modern history, particularly in shaping the culture and economy of California’s Gold Country.
“There’s gold in those hills”
When gold was discovered in 1849, there was hardly an olive industry, or an agricultural industry for that matter. One of the largest mass migrations of the time, dubbed the California Gold Rush, quickly and dramatically changed region. Scores of people descended on the Sierra Nevada foothills, seeking a better life and dreaming of striking it rich.
Gold mining and panning were not the only industries to develop at a breakneck speed. A large number of people necessitates a large amount of food, leading many residents and settlers to explore a different kind of riches from the land. Fertile soil and a favorable climate make the Gold Country an agricultural goldmine.
Nuggets weren’t the only beautiful rocks
Olives quickly took up residence in California, with Scientific Americas proclaiming in 1864 that certain California olive oils compared favorably to that produced in Florence, Italy. At the time, olives seemed like an unlikely crop in the Gold Country, as most people believed that they only thrived in coastal climates. Yet, adventurous pioneers had planted orchards throughout the Gold Country, and their gamble was paying off. By the late 1800s, olives had become a valuable crop from Sacramento to Valley Springs and beyond.
In 1916, a young family from Connecticut purchased an 80-acre orchard, which would become one of the most successful olive producers in the state. It was named Rocca Bella, meaning beautiful rocks, a reference to the appearance of olives. Within three years Rocca Bella was producing several tons of product, and in 1935 the family formed the Rocca Bella Olive Association along with other area growers. By 1954, Rocca Bella had 35 member farms, totaling over 1,000 acres of olive trees.
Then and now
The local olive industry subsided a bit in the 1970s and 1980s, but it never, as some believed, faded away. In fact, the 1990s saw a resurgence of olive production in the Gold Country. In the coming decades, old dormant olive orchards (including the legendary Rocca Bella) would be purchased and brought back to active production, while new ones were planted.
Today, olives are once again becoming a pillar of the local economy. According to the Calaveras County 2015 Crop Report, 138 tons of fresh olives and oil were produced in Calaveras Country in 2015, with a value over $100,000.
The rich history and bright future of Gold Country olives, along with other agricultural industries, will be celebrated on August 05, 2017. San Andreas Rotary’s first annual Calaveras Wine, Cheese & Olive Festival will include information and product tasting from local producers, along with People’s Choice Judging, live music, fine art, raffle prizes, a silent auction, and much more. Get your tickets are the special earlybird price of $40.00 at Country Cliff’s, Baker Acres, La Contenta, or on this website.