Royal oil

Jeff Martin has nine barn owl boxes throughout the grove with the entrace facing the rising sun. The owls work to keep rabbit away. 2.1.11

Gilroy might have a new claim to fame in the world of specialty foods if Jeff Martin brings home a 2014 Good Food Award this January, thanks to an orchard of nearly 3,500 olive trees growing in the rural outskirts of town.
Martin, 61, is one of 200 finalists for the awards, which select foods that are not only delicious but sustainably produced.
“What I like doing is making a real high quality product that’s the real deal,” explained Martin, who produces Extra Virgin Olive Oil certified by the California Olive Oil Council – the highest ranking standard when it comes to quality – from trees at his picturesque Frantoio Grove on Monterey Highway just north of Masten Avenue.
On Jan. 16, Martin will attend the awards gala in San Francisco, where the top 100 Good Food Award winners will be announced by Alice Waters, the American cook known for championing California cuisine by cooking with organic, locally grown ingredients.
The Good Food Awards was created four years ago by a collaboration of food producers, farmers, food journalists and independent grocers. Awards are given in ten categories, with oil being the newest.
Entries for the Good Food Awards are subjected to strict criteria and cannot have genetically modified ingredients, artificial additives or have been produced using synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides.
If Jeff wins, his product will receive the Good Food Awards seal, which assures consumers they have found something exceptionally delicious that also supports sustainability and the social good. He’ll also get the chance to sell his product alongside other contest winners in a special Good Food Awards Marketplace at the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture farmer’s market Jan. 18 San Francisco.
In the oil category of the competition, Martin is competing against a cornucopia of novelties, including exotics such as a black walnut oil from Missouri, a butternut squash seed oil from New York, and a blood orange olive oil from California.
Martin’s olive oil was one of 1,450 entries in the contest that features products from all 50 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
When Martin decided to plant on 30 acres of property near Monterey Highway, he originally considered grapes – a crop his mother and brother cultivate – but settled on olives, unknowingly returning to the tradition of his great great-grandfather Hugh M. LaRue, who cultivated olives on a farm near the University of California, Davis.
“It makes a very attractive grove,” notes Martin, who loves the olive trees’ year-round silvery leaves.
After nearly nine years spent nurturing the orchard, which produced it’s first harvest in 2010, Martin’s oil has become cultishly popular among foodists. It has been featured in local restaurants and gets snatched off shelves at Rocca’s Market in San Martin.
Martin certainly picked a niche market. There are 4,000 grape growers in California, but only about 300 olive tree growers, Martin notes. Of those 300, roughly 40 produce olive oil in their own mill, as Martin does.
At Frantoio Grove, olives are sent to the mill within two hours of being picked, a practice that seals in the fresh flavor of the olives, Martin says.
“I get to control everything from the days it’s picked to when it’s milled,” he explained.
Although he is new to the world of olive oil milling, Martin owns his craft with the passionate dedication of a seasoned industry professional. He’s even traveled overseas to study olive oil production in Spain, France and Italy – and has plans to go to Greece next year.
It’s not the first time Martin’s olives have received recognition. His olive oil has won gold medals at the Yolo County Fair, the Napa County Fair, and the Los Angeles International Olive Oil Competition.
For previous competitions, Martin simply mailed in a few bottles of his product and waited for the judges to taste it.
To enter the Good Food Awards, he also filled out online questionnaires explaining the production process step by step, since the competition is as much about process as taste.
“I like that, because I have good answers for all that,” Martin added.
Martin produces olive oil in an environmentally conscious way – carefully keeping track of irrigation so he doesn’t waste water, composting leftover olive pulp from the milling process, and encouraging barn owls to patrol his fields by placing convenient nest boxes in his orchard. When he finds pests the owls can’t beat, he uses just one gallon of organic pesticide to treat his 30-acre crop.
Even though the results aren’t in yet, Martin is proud to be considered a finalist in such a prestigious competition.
“There’s so much that people don’t know about olive oil,” he explained. “Having an award lets people know it’s good.”
Jeff Martin’s olive oil can be found at local wineries and markets in San Martin, Morgan Hill and Gilroy. The cost varies by location, but is about $20 a bottle. Here are some locations selling the award-winning oil: Clos La Chance Winery or Rocca’s Market in San Martin; People & Planet in Morgan Hill; and Solis Winery on Hecker Pass in Gilroy.