Taking a gamble on olive oil paid off for one Native American tribe.
The flavors are strong this year,” says Jim Etters, director of land management for the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation in Brooks, California, about 90 minutes northeast of the San Francisco Bay Area. “We’ve got a lot of fruit and grass upfront, and a nice peppery finish.”
Etters could be talking about wine, but in this case, the single varietal he’s excited about is the oil produced from this season’s crop of small, juicy Arbequina olives. Milled within hours of being harvested, Séka Hills extra-virgin olive oil is part of the new generation of California olive oils, and it’s the only one grown and milled by Native Americans. Plus, the Séka Hills Arbequina olive oil is an award-winner, picking up more than a dozen over the years, including two nominations for the industry’s Oscars, the Specialty Outstanding Food Innovation Awards — an honor that’s been millennia in the making. The 2016 olive harvest looks bountiful and will be underway October through mid-November.
More than 4,000 years ago, the Yocha Dehe Wintun tribe settled in the area of Northern California now known as the Capay Valley, a verdant microclimate nestled between the Napa and Sacramento valleys. As farmers and hunter-gatherers, the Yocha Dehe people thrived. By the mid-18th century they were 20,000 strong — they were forced off of their land by the Spanish, and then later, the U.S. government. In order to survive, the remaining members resettled in the surrounding hills. By the beginning of the 20th century, the tribe’s population had dwindled to just a few hundred members.
That was about the same time the federal government stepped in and began issuing land grants to tribes — and in this case, some of the land granted back to the Yocha Dehe Wintuns was the same land on which they had previously lived. It was land they knew.
They began farming the fertile Capay Valley soil again. By 2003, they had planted wheat and sunflowers. Then came walnuts, almonds, sorghum, and alfalfa, and much later, wine grapes. They had grown a business model built on their agricultural expertise. In 1985, the tribe was able to open a bingo parlor, which gave way in 2004 to the bigger, more profitable Cache Creek Casino Resort.
So why olives? And why olive oil?
“We were told if you take care of the land, it’ll take care of us,” says James Kinter, tribal secretary of the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation.
The valley was successfully filling with crops. But 82 acres of lesser-quality Class 3 soil wasn’t being used. Kinter and his tribe wanted to find something that would grow here.
Working with the research and development team at University of California, Davis, Etters and the Yocha Dehe Property, Farm & Ranch Committee members pointed to one crop: olives. “We’re on the same latitude as Greece and Italy, with the same type of climate: a warm Mediterranean climate with cooler evenings,” Kinter says.
In 2010, the tribe planted the first trees — hearty Spanish Arbequinas kept at a shrubby height of just 9 feet tall — implementing a new, high-density planting style that would enable the olives to be harvested mechanically instead of the old-fashioned way, by hand. Mechanized harvest allowed the grower to move the fruit to the mill more quickly. Olives begin to lose freshness and quality from the moment they’re picked.
In 2012, after one season of driving to a mill two hours away, the tribe decided to build its own mill — state-of-the-art machinery from Florence, Italy, including a hammer mill that pulverizes the olives into a paste; a malaxer, which separates the oil from the solids; and two centrifuges, one that removes the solids and another that removes the water. What’s left is pure extra-virgin olive oil, a silky greenish-gold liquid left to settle for a month before it’s bottled on-site.
“We decided if we were going to be in the olive oil business, we needed a mill,” Kinter says. “We wanted to control the destiny of the fruit, from the tree to the harvest to the mill to the bottle.” Today, the tribe not only mills 56,000 gallons a year of its own olive oil [as of 2015], but it also mills for three dozen or so other local olive growers.
In order to extend the Séka Hills brand, they’ve planted three other types of olive trees, all grown in a traditional manner. The olives all have different flavor profiles and are bottled separately. “The Tanjaska is a very mild oil. It’s very buttery,” Etters says. “The Frantoio has big fruit characteristics. The Picual is the most common variety grown in Spain, and there’s a reason for that: It’s pungent and has a good shelf life and is a bit more peppery.”
The idea is to keep the Séka Hills olive oils single-variety, as opposed to creating a blend. “I can appreciate a good blend, but I think the consumer is going to want to taste the different varietals and different flavor profiles as they do with wine,” Etters says. “Ultimately we hope the customer will have three or four oils to use with the different dishes they prepare, just as you have different wines for different dishes.”
So far, the strategy is working. When the tribe constructed the mill, they built a tasting room, too, and there’s an adjacent 2,355-square-foot retail space that sells other Séka Hills brand products: wildflower honey, raw and honey-glazed walnuts, garlic-herb and chocolate-covered almonds, and Angus cross beef.
“It’s self-sustaining,” Kinter says. “Our forecast return was somewhere between 10 and 15 years out, and we’re beating the numbers we projected. We’re doing better than we thought we would. Sales are going up 50 percent every year — it’s a big surprise.
“It’s also a community effort. The PF&R Committee members take great pride and care for the land using sustainable practices. The tribe has matured and grown. It’s a beautiful thing to be able to diversify. We’re trying to look ahead seven generations. The tribe’s long-lasting. We’ve been here for 4,000 years, and we’re not going anywhere.”
For more information on Séka Hills olive oil and to visit the Séka Hills Olive Mill and Tasting Room, visit their website.
From the October 2016 issue.