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Caltech branches into ... olive oil

The Pit Expulsion Lab? Students will bottle the fruit from campus' copious trees.

April 28, 2007|Larry Gordon | Times Staff Writer

Carmichael admitted having suspicions. "I have to say at first I was not sure I would eat this without seeing them eat it too," she said. "We were sort of new on campus and heard all the local legends of Caltech pranks. We didn't want to be eating dish soap or something." As it turned out, the oil tasted "wonderful."

The students' success inspired Delmy Emerson, Caltech's buildings and grounds director. Her staff sent a batch of olives to a commercial presser. The resulting 54 small bottles are being given to donors, guests and staff.

In a major expansion, plans are underway to harvest 60 trees as part of a festival next fall. Students, faculty and grounds crews will do the work from ladders and cherry pickers.

The Santa Barbara Olive Co. will handle pressing and bottling, although students will design the labels. The anticipated 3,000 12.7-ounce bottles will be sold on campus and could generate at least $30,000 -- probably for scholarships or gardeners' bonuses.

Craig Makela, president of the Santa Barbara Olive Co., recently visited Caltech to teach grounds workers and students how to turn the trees from ornaments into providers. He was joined by landscape architect Douglas Campbell, an adjunct professor at USC who is advising Caltech on sustainable agriculture.

Standing on Olive Walk, Makela urged the gardeners to trim the trees, which average 45 feet in height, and described an organic deterrent for fruit flies he uses on the 5,500 trees at his Gaviota Coast farm: Put a yeast mixture in plastic bottles hanging from trees; flies enter through holes but can't escape.

Although he had to explain that olives should be picked by hand (no sticks allowed), Makela said the students "got the principles right." He joked that Caltech, which manages the Jet Propulsion Lab in La Canada Flintridge, might wind up sending "a bottle of olive oil to the moon."

Caltech has joined the California Olive Oil Council, a trade group, and expects to submit its wares for lab and taste tests to gain that group's approval for extra virgin oil -- indicating low acidity, among other things. It is not the first university to do so.

UC Davis wanted to prevent bicycle and pedestrian spills caused by olives dropping from its 1,500 trees, according to Dan Flynn, manager of the campus' olive oil program. The UC Davis Olive Oil brand offers several varieties, including one named after Gunrock, the school's mascot mustang.

Cal State Fresno is working on a much bigger scale, testing mechanical picking on 12,000 trees planted very densely on 20 acres. That school expects this year to produce about 4,000 bottles of Fresno State Estate Reserve.

Caltech's product will be sold under the name Olive Walk. With such commerce, Caltech students realize their oil's quirky origins may be lost, but that's an acceptable trade-off if the harvest festival, complete with a celebratory dinner, becomes a tradition.

Jones imagines a future when he might attend an olive festival as an old alumnus. "The students," he joked, "will be bathing in oil and they could have oil-chugging contests."

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