ARTOIS, Calif. — Nestled in a corner of the Sacramento Valley known for its rice, almonds and walnuts, densely packed rows of manicured olive trees stretch toward the horizon.
This 1,700-acre spread is the domain of California Olive Ranch, an upstart company with big ambitions.
The U.S. is the world's No. 3 consumer of olive oil, drizzling 293,000 metric tons of the stuff over salads and pizzas last year. Yet almost every drop was produced overseas in countries including Spain, Italy and Greece. Unable to compete with heavily subsidized foreign competitors, U.S. producers have focused on pricey artisanal oils.
The California Olive Ranch is changing that.
In just a few years, the Chico firm has become the largest U.S. producer, dominating the market for domestic extra virgin olive oil. Its square green bottles can be found in retailers as diverse as Wal-Mart and Whole Foods. It's also supplying big restaurant chains including California Pizza Kitchen.
And far from being deferential to its European elders, the company has come out swinging. It has publicly disparaged the quality of some foreign brands and is pressing the federal government for import restrictions.
"They have shaken up the industry," said Curtis Cord, publisher of Olive Oil Times, a trade publication. "The Europeans have had a run of the place for a long time."
But this made-in-USA story has a twist. The chief owners of California Olive Ranch aren't Golden State farmers but a group of wealthy Spaniards.
They include members of the Sumarroca family, a clan of Catalan industrialists who are banking on the New World to expand their agricultural empire.
Their group has invested millions buying 4,000 acres of California farmland and contracting with more than 60 local olive growers. And it has built a state-of-the-art milling facility in its flagship ranch in Artois, 90 miles north of Sacramento, with the expectation that the U.S. is primed for an olive oil revolution.
Speaking from Barcelona, Carles Sumarroca, chairman of a massive plant nursery operation called Agromillora, said he thinks California can do for olives what it did for wine grapes.
"The U.S. for many years was basically an importer of wine, and then decades ago the wine industry in California started to grow.... We think that with olive oil, something similar can happen," Sumarroca said. "Besides, the climate and soil conditions for growing olive trees in California are excellent."
California isn't the only place Sumarroca is putting down roots. Agromillora, which has set up an olive tree nursery in Gridley, Calif., has similar operations in Australia, Chile and Turkey — nations with Mediterranean climates where olives thrive. It's all part of an effort to feed surging demand for olive oil, a $5.4-billion global trade.
But nowhere is that potentially more fruitful than in the U.S., whose olive oil consumption has more than tripled over the last two decades. Domestic olive oil makers have increased production tenfold since 2007 to 10,000 metric tons. Demand is particularly strong for so-called extra virgin olive oil. The highest grade, it is 100% pure olive oil made by pressing or crushing olives; it is low in acidity and contains no chemicals or additives.
California Olive Ranch is at the forefront of the U.S. increase. The company is using a technique known as Super High Density farming, or SHD, that calls for planting as many as 675 trees per acre, compared with 125 per acre in conventional olive farming. Trees are planted close together, then their branches are pruned and trellised to form a single dense hedge. That allows growers to use rolling machines called over-the-row harvesters to move down the hedgerows, shaking the fruit off trees.
The process is cheaper, faster and yields more oil per acre than using teams of farmworkers or conventional harvesting machines. And it ensures better quality because olives reach the mills before they start to spoil, according to California Olive Ranch president and CEO Gregg Kelley.
A former technology executive who joined the company in 2006, Kelley can appear exasperated when he speaks about Old World methods.
"Vast amounts of olive oil from Spain and Italy is low quality because they have difficulty getting the fruit off the trees," he said. He likens many of the popular imported brands to "glorified vegetable oil."
Kelley said he can deliver better-quality extra virgin oil at a competitive price.
A 500-milliliter bottle of California Olive Ranch sold for $7.58 at a Wal-Mart in Rosemead recently, a slight premium on popular imported extra virgin olive oil brands such as Bertolli ($6.74) and Carapelli ($7.24).