The Yocha Dehe Return Focus to their Land through An Olive Oil Enterprise—and More
“The tribal gaming operation is a significant economic generator for the tribe,” Marshall McKay, the tribe’s chairman, told Indian Country Today Media Network. “At this point, we are looking to diversify, because of the downturn in the economy and uncertainty about gaming in general.”
That explains the tribe’s new endeavor—producing olive oil in the Capay Valley of Yolo County, California.
A mill, custom-manufactured in Florence, Italy, arrived on the tribe’s trust land in Brooks, California on June 9, Jim Etters, the tribe’s director of land management, told ICTMN. The state-of-the-art mill, the first of its kind in the U.S., offers minimal exposure to oxygen, to better preserve the flavor of the oil, Etters said.
The tribe plans to produce its own brand of the oil, from olives harvested from its three-year-old olive trees that cover 81 acres of the tribe’s original homeland, the Capay Valley. The nation has bought back 7,700 acres in the valley, mostly within the last decade, according to McKay.
The Capay Valley’s hot Mediterranean-like climate creates prime olive-growing conditions, and the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation intends to capitalize on the esteemed reputation of the area. “We feel California has precedence and a future,” McKay said. “We hope to be part of that.”
“The Capay Valley name carries a lot of weight on supermarket shelves,” Etters said. “We want to take advantage of that.”
Etters expects the tribe’s olive oil brand to hit grocery stores in December 2012. “The plan is to start local, to plan to have oil in local grocery outlets and restaurants and expand from there as our production increases,” Etters said.
The brand name of the olive oil? Séka (the Patwin word for “blue”) Hills. “Séka Hills is the overarching brand name for all our agriculture products,” Etters said.
There is more than one Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation consumable. The other is its own wine. The tribe’s first wines, a white (100 percent Viognier) and a rosé (100 percent Syrah), were added to menus at Cache Creek Resort Casino in May. Grown on six-year-old vines in the Capay Valley, the tribe sends its grapes to Revolution Wines in Sacramento for its custom crush.
“We are planning the full launch of the [wine] label this fall” with the release of the Séka Hills red wine slated for early 2012, Etters said.
While the tribe expands its Séka Hills line of products, it also aims to develop relationships with neighboring farmers and promote a growing industry in Yolo County by introducing the first mill to the area. “We have two goals,” Etters told ICTMN. “The first is to produce super premium oil under the Séka Hills label. The second goal is to offer custom milling to growers to produce oil under their label.”
A local mill will enable olives grown in the region to be pressed quickly after harvest, preserving the freshness critical for creating premium oil. The county’s olive farmers currently truck their fruit as far as 112 miles to Sonoma, Corning or Stockton for access to a high-quality mill, according to the tribe’s press release. “Now [other olive oil producers] have a facility close by, rather than having to ship their olives,” Etters said. “They [will] have a local facility right in their backyard.”
The sustainable economic move will do more than provide the Yocha Dehe a new stream of revenue. It will reconnect tribal members to their ancestral land. “There is such a link between the land and our people,” McKay said. “It seems like a natural fit that now the tribe is engaged in sustainable farming processes and grazing processes, utilizing ancient techniques again to take care of the land.”