Santa Ynez Valley Journal
April 24, 2008
Figueroa Farms is the largest oil producer in the Santa Ynez valley. Olive oil, that is.
But it hasn’t stopped them from embracing the trend toward alternative energy sources as well. So, amidst the 4500 olive trees that Shawn and Antoinette Addison planted in 2002, stands another farm, their 15 kilowatt solar farm, a new addition to the orchard in 2008.
Harnessing solar energy is just the latest earth-friendly approach to business that distinguishes the Addison’s olive oil endeavor.
The first goal was to help put California olive oil on the map, by establishing a fully-certified organic operation – from the way they farm the orchard, to the state-of-the-art mill they use to process olives into world-class extra virgin olive oil. Their vision is that, one day, Santa Ynez valley will rival the world’s prime olive oil-producing regions.
“It is important to us to farm our land and produce olive oil in a way that emphasizes the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water. We want to do our part to enhance environmental quality for future generations,” said Shawn Addison.
The second goal was to make the farm energy-independent, eventually, and reduce the carbon footprint they place on the planet.
As Antoinette Addison described it, “We use a photovoltaic installation in order to take advantage of the many sunny days in the valley. We figured we were burning a lot of electricity. Eventually, it will pay for itself. The trick is to try to build a system that will zero out [energy generated to energy used] and I think we’re pretty close.”
With graduate degrees from Stanford University’s Food Research Institute, the couple focused on agricultural interests early on. Moving to the Santa Ynez valley, they decided to plant an olive orchard and follow a family tradition.
“We first fell in love with olives and their oil after inheriting an old orchard and house in the south of France,” said Antoinette.
“In some sense, it’s really a nice crop. It looks good all year long. You don’t have to live in a cloud of chemicals. And, if you make mistakes, it doesn’t really matter. You’ll recover from it,” she said.
Growing olives is not trouble-free though. Just like any farming operation, there are always challenges. Like the olive fruit fly that first invaded California in the late 1990’s and threatened crops statewide. Or last year’s drought, that caused many olive farms to lose most of their fruit. The latest challenge is a new pest that may prove more damaging than any of the previous problems.
But the couple meets these challenges head-on, with characteristic tenacity and business acumen. In the short span of just over six years, Figueroa Farms has become one of the most celebrated organic olive oil companies in the United States.
At a time when more and more acres were being planted with olives, Figueroa Farms was the first to put a large processing mill in the valley. This proved to be an enormous advantage for local growers whose oil quality is determined, in part, by how quickly it gets processed following harvest.
“There are 20 other farms that we help in the milling and the agricultural side – from here to Paso Robles. We use the same careful hand-harvest, cold-extraction production and storage processes as we do for our organic olives. We mill for companies from tiny producers like Clos Pepe to large producers like Santa Barbara Olive Company,” said Shawn.
Antoinette added, “Last year, we even started working with a grower as far away as Raymond. It is an orchard that was planted around 1850, in rolling foothills. The trees have been completely neglected and we’re working with them, rehabilitating the orchard.”
When asked about trends in the business, Shawn focused on the natural pattern of any maturing market.
“The biggest change is consolidation. We’re seeing the little brands drop away and what were big brands like us are now considered boutique brands.”
“The really small ones who want to stay small can enjoy it, sell locally and have a great little business. When it’s truly local, I think it can be fun,” added Antoinette.
In addition to milling, bottling and consulting services, their newest challenge is the recent acquisition of the Olive Oil Source business, the primary supplier of olive oil equipment and information in California. They see the new business as a unique opportunity to further their goal of playing a major role in developing the California olive oil industry.
“The biggest obstacle is people first thinking about Italian olive oil and not knowing what quality California has to offer,” said Shawn.
With numerous domestic and international awards both for Figueroa Farms branded-oils and other producers whose products they mill, the Addisons are confident that locally-produced olive oils can continue to gain accolades in the health-conscious world of gourmet products.
If their success thus far is any indication of the future, it’s clear their goals of sustainability will be good for California olive oil, good for the valley and good for the planet as well.