April 13 2011 10:23 AM

Temecula Olive Oil Company's small but mindful waste-to-fuel program

For seven months of the year, the exhaust coming from this tractor is rather savory.
Driving out to Aguanga just after sunrise, I counted nine hot-air balloons rising above the farmland. From wineries to Applebee's, equestrian training grounds to Motocross superstars, this hot and fertile swatch of southern Riverside County is a study in contrasts. But 18 miles east of Temecula, there's a sweet-smelling little corner called the Temecula Olive Oil Company.

The Temecula Olive Oil Company is a small and picturesque ranch with seven acres of mission olive trees, though the company manages more than 120 acres in total. Small gardens of herbs, flowers and seasonal vegetables welcome visitors with bright colors and heady scents, and pale purple wisteria and grape vines share climbing space around a covered tasting area.

Thom Curry is the production guy at TOOC, managing the company's acreage as well as overseeing the restoration of old groves, some more than 100 years old. Curry's wife Nancy started the business 10 years ago with her partner, Catherine Demuth-Pepe, and together they've grown Temecula Olive Oil Company into a small but thriving agricultural force.

When making olive oil, only 15 to 20 percent of the olive makes up the golden delight that goes into a bottle. That leaves a lot of leftover pits, skin and flesh, especially since TOOC churned out close to 50,000 gallons of the stuff in the last year.

However, there's still residual oil that remains in that waste product, and as Thom Curry explains, “we couldn't compost what was left over until we took the oil out.”

Enter the screw press. About five years ago, the company invested in this small bit of machinery, which manhandles the hot olive waste product, pressing and extruding out every last drop of remaining oil. What's left is twofold: a healthy, dry powder perfect for composting and a small amount of oil, which is then filtered and poured directly into the diesel engines out at the ranch.

Like any self-respecting ranch, there's a tractor, though it's modestly sized for the modest spread. About seven months out of the year, the scent that spews from this John Deere's rear smells more like a Spanish kitchen than a diesel pump. The team at Temecula Olive Oil Company is craftily using the leftover waste from olive oil pressings as fuel for the tractor, a generator and even Curry's truck.

“When Diesel invented his engine,” he explains, “he powered it using vegetable oil,” so although what Temecula Olive Oil Company is doing may be nothing new in terms of combustion-engine science, it certainly appears to be a more mindful approach to running a farm.

A diesel engine uses compression to heat the fuel inside until it's hot enough to ignite on its own. However, olive oil needs to be preheated prior to going into a diesel engine.

That's why Temecula Olive Oil Company only uses leftover product in its engines from around May through October, letting the blistering ambient temps of Aguanga and its environs do the preheating work for them.

Since starting the process of waste-to-fuel five years ago, Curry says he's seen interest grow among farmers who want to be more self-sufficient.

“I think it's a movement, not just in the smaller farms, but across the board.”

He travels the country, going to seminars and meeting people from farms and businesses around the world. In his view, the farms that are able to use waste, be it for fuel, compost or animal feed, are the companies that will be better able to weather economic downturns and ultimately be more profitable.

Though Curry admits there hasn't been any significant financial savings, at least not yet, he feels good about the investment the company's made, both in the screw press, as well as the labor involved in extracting the oil for fuel. Having a way to get rid of waste, as well as create a source of both fertilizer and fuel, all without leaving the ranch, means Temecula Olive Oil Company can be more self-sufficient, and less dependent on outside sources. And, as Curry ruefully ponders another painful year at the pump, “with the price of diesel this summer…” there might end up being some cost savings after all.

TOOC has even begun experimenting with other potential biofuels. They've tried palm seeds from nearby tree farms, and they're even attempting to get oil out of algae— though no success yet. The latest experiment is an attempt to make ethanol out of cattails grown on the ranch. TOOC is even taking olive pits out of the powdery compost material and using them to fire boilers at the ranch. turns out olive pits burn hot and efficiently, with very little ash.

The use of olive oil is not quite environmentally neutral, as any time you burn fuel, you're changing the basic properties. There are still emissions of both carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. However, there doesn't appear to be a net increase in carbon dioxide emissions, as the carbon dioxide released is part of the cycle of carbon and oxygen originally absorbed by the trees.

Temecula Olive Oil Company's focus on self-sufficiency represents a growing attitude of mindfulness among farmers towards waste product. A visit to the ranch shows the possibilities available to farmers and ranchers are indeed intriguing.

From waste to taste

Let's not forget that Temecula Olive Oil Company's wonderful waste product started out as deliciously fruity olive oil. Tastings are available at any of its retail stores. Check out the newer locations in Solana Beach or Plaza del Pasado in Old Town San Diego, although I'd recommend a trip to the original shop on the charming-yet-overlooked main drag of Old Town Temecula. The more adventurous can also make the trip to the ranch itself two Saturdays each month. The facility is open for tours, tastings and, often, slow-food-themed events with flavors from its own garden.

The company may be small, but it's turning out big, bold flavors in its oils as well as its small collection of vinegars. One standout oil is the Le Caprice. The smell evokes the groves, with a flavor that's both buttery and a bit grassy. I find the Citrus and Fresh Basil oils to be exceptional examples of the flavored oils; the scents of each one are intoxicating. To make the Citrus, olives are mashed with whole blood oranges, creating an incredibly bright oil that would taste great with seafood. After receiving the Vanilla & Fig Balsamic Vinegar as a Christmas gift, I've had fun playing around with it in the kitchen. Try drizzling a reduction of it over goat cheese and topping it with some cracked black pepper.

Or, just take a small sip of the oil straight from the bottle. It packs a powerful punch.

Write to jennym@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com.


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