Harvesting olives at the Wolfskill Experimental Orchards, photo by: John Boyer
Harvesting olives at the Wolfskill Experimental Orchards, photo by: John Boyer

Growing, Crafting, Selling: Students Learn the Art of Olive Oil Production

UC Davis Olive Center’s Apprenticeship Program Gets Support from California Olive Oil Industry


Olio Novello Festival

Saturday, November 18
Noon to 3 p.m.
UC Davis Olive Center at the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science

Register online



-Free tastings of the 2023 limited edition Olio Novello extra virgin olive oil

-“Grow Olive Trees in your Garden: Basics of Planting and Care,” a free class with tips on how to grow olive trees at home

-“Olive Oil Appreciation: How to Select and Enjoy it,” learn what makes olive oil taste great, $20.

-Purchase two or more bottles of Olio Novello and get a free olive tree, courtesy of Novavine Olive Nursery (while supplies last).

It’s the time of year students and staff with the UC Davis Olive Center have been diligently preparing for – harvest season. With each bin overflowing with plump green and purple olives, students see firsthand that their unwavering commitment and meticulous care from the past year have yielded a bountiful harvest.

This is just one aspect of growing olives and producing olive oil that students experience while being part of a new apprenticeship program launched by the Olive Center called Olea Learn.

“In Latin, the word ‘olea’ means ‘olive,’ or ‘olive tree,’” said Olive Center Executive Director Javier Fernandez Salvador. “We chose the name because the students will learn everything about olives.”

Last year served as the pilot for the apprenticeship program, which started with one student and has since grown to five. Fernandez Salvador said that’s thanks to $50,000 given by the Cortopassi Family Foundation, which is interested in continuing to help support the program in the future. Other producers, growers and agriculture service and supply companies have also joined to support this project.

Hands-on learning

Irvin Chao, a senior majoring in biological systems engineering, has worked with Olea Learn for the past year and appreciates how comprehensive the program is.

“The biggest thing that attracted me was the chance to learn what goes on in the industry, not just taking care of the plant, but the logistics of financing an orchard and selling products,” Chao said.

The goal of the program is to teach undergraduate students a wide range of topics in agronomy, including field management, irrigation practices and pest control. The students are paid apprentices who gain hands-on experience taking care of the olive trees at the Wolfskill Experimental Orchards in Winters, which includes setting up experiments, pruning and calculating sufficient amounts of water and fertilizer. The program also provides opportunities for students to network with industry professionals by bringing in speakers and hosting workshops.

Raeva Johnson, a sustainable agriculture and food systems major, recently joined the program and believes this job will help prepare her for a future in the agricultural workforce.

“My favorite part about the apprenticeship, so far, has been working in the orchard doing yield analysis,” Johnson said. “This involves hand harvesting one whole tree from each variety to predict how many pounds of olives we will get in the entire harvest.”

After harvest, these olives will be used to make extra virgin olive oil, photo by: Adele Amico Roxas, UC Davis Olive Center
After harvest, these olives will be used to make extra virgin olive oil, photo by: Adele Amico Roxas, UC Davis Olive Center

Chao and Johnson also share their knowledge with other growers in the region. Fernandez Salvador said students provide valuable advice and solutions they’ve developed that address issues related to irrigation or soil management.

“Working here gives you the perspective of the small-scale farming industry,” Chao said. “We get to see what it means to lead an agricultural business.”

Fernandez Salvador said the program is a win-win for both students looking to gain important expertise, and for local and statewide agricultural companies that will look to hire highly skilled workers.

“For students, it’s a great opportunity; the only way you get experience like this, is when you’re working in the industry,” Fernandez Salvador said. “And for industry, they get a continuous source of trained personnel at the best agricultural school in the world.”

Crafting high-quality olive oil

Students also receive sensory training and learn how to professionally taste and evaluate extra virgin olive oil. That comes in handy after harvest season, when next comes milling and bottling this year’s batch of olive oil.

Students work with Fernandez Salvador and staff to decide which olive blends have the best attributes for an extra virgin olive oil product. They also design the olive oil bottle label and play a role in the marketing their products, which are sold at the UC Davis bookstores on campus and in downtown Davis.

The Olive Center and Olea Learn students will unveil this year’s limited-edition batch during the “Olio Novello Festival,” scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 18, from noon to 3 p.m. at the UC Davis Olive Center, located on campus at the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science (details here).

Fernandez Salvador said he’s filled with pride when he witnesses the students take ownership of the products they helped create. Nurturing the growth of the olives and contributing to the creation of an exceptional olive oil gives Chao a huge sense of accomplishment.

“We grow it, we bottle it, we sell it. It makes me feel proud,” Chao said.

Media Resources

Primary Category

Secondary Categories

Student Life