Food

Farmers Markets: Paso Gold rides the olive oil boom

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As part of a great California olive oil boom, now at least a dozen olive oil vendors are selling at local farmers markets, up from only a couple a decade ago. Most offer a good product, but there are few who, like Michael O'Brien of Paso Gold, provide local, fresh, high-quality, certified organic oil, sold by the farmer himself in the agricultural section of the market.

The combination of new varieties from Europe, high-density systems and mechanized harvest led to a surge in plantings of olives for oil, from a few hundred acres two decades ago to about 30,000 today, said Paul Vossen, a University of California farm advisor. Production has increased 500% in the last decade, to 1.5 million gallons, but the United States still produces only 4% of the olive oil that it consumes, he added.

Most of the big farms, which rely on mechanized harvests, are in the Central Valley, but in San Luis Obispo County, especially near Paso Robles, there are dozens of small, mostly second-career growers who vie to produce world-class oil, like O'Brien.

O'Brien, born in 1956 in San Gabriel and raised in Glendora, worked for 36 years as an aircraft mechanic and crew chief for American Airlines before retiring last December. In 2001, he and his wife, Vicki, bought 10 acres near Paso Robles, and in 2006 they planted 3,000 olive trees on half of that. They chose a hedgerow array suited to keeping the trees short, so that pruning, manual harvest and other farming practices can be performed without ladders.

"We don't use machines, which can bruise the fruit," he said last Saturday at the Pasadena farmers market. "I bring in a crew that harvests everything by hand."

O'Brien takes great care that his fruit is pressed at a mill in Templeton within four hours of harvest.

"Olives start fermenting the minute they're picked, so quality really suffers if they sit on a dock," he said.

After O'Brien's first crop in 2010, he started selling his oil at the San Mateo farmers market. A friend, Sid Weiser (patriarch of Weiser Family Farms), helped him get into markets in Southern California, where his children and father live, and he now sells just at the Pasadena Victory Park and Claremont markets.

He offers three oils from the new crop, harvested and pressed in November, and bottled two weeks ago: straight Arbosana, a Spanish variety, herbaceous, fruity and well balanced; a peppery Farm Blend, 90% Arbequina (a mild, nutty Spanish variety) and 10% Koroneiki (a strong-flavored Greek); and an early-harvest Paso Blend, half Arbosana, half Arbequina. Most are $12 for 250 milliliters, or $22 for 500 ml.

Trim and affable, O'Brien clearly enjoys interacting with customers, pouring samples, showing photos of the farm and discussing his organic growing practices.

"Do something you love and you will never work a day in your life," he said, grinning.

This season his production is modest, just 200 gallons, but he plans to expand sales by planting more olives on the rest of his land, by leasing property nearby or by forming a second-certificate relationship that would allow him to sell another farmer's oil — only high-quality and organic, he insists. He also plans to seek recognition for his Paso Blend by entering it in the Los Angeles International Extra Virgin Olive Oil Competition, to be held in late March.

Tips of the week: Tender, sweet English peas, shelled and in the pod, grown organically in Camarillo by McGrath Family Farms, are at the Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Calabasas and Santa Monica (Wednesday) farmers markets.

It's Chinese New Year this Sunday. Look for long-necked pummelos, the kind favored by many Asians for the holiday, grown by Walker Farms in Exeter, at the Pasadena Victory Park and Alhambra markets.

Sumo (Dekopon) mandarins grown in the San Joaquin Valley, seedless, easy to peel and highly flavored, with a distinctive bump at the top, have started showing up at a dozen stores and chains in the Los Angeles area, including Whole Foods, Bristol Farms, Gelson's, Grow and Koreatown Plaza. Jonelle George of Lindsay is now scheduled to start selling them at the Wednesday Santa Monica farmers market starting Feb. 20.

food@latimes.com

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