Sale of table olive processor signals industry transition
By Ching Lee
The acquisition of Bell-Carter Foods by a Spanish olive company marks the end of an era for the largest table olive producer in the U.S. and one of two remaining olive processors in the state.
Announced last week, the deal between Bell-Carter and Aceitunas Guadalquivir, or AG Olives, comes as California farmers continue to remove their table olive orchards, forcing state canners to look globally to source the fruit.
Financial terms of the transaction were not disclosed. However, the Walnut Creek-based company—known for its Lindsay brand of black ripe olives—said the sale allows for immediate upgrades to its production facility in Corning. This includes updated olive cookers, expanded warehouse space and new production lines, Bell-Carter said. The investments signal the company’s intention to stay in the table olive business—and in California—effectively maintaining the state’s olive-processing infrastructure.
Under the new ownership, fourth-generation CEO Tim Carter, who took the helm in 2012, will continue to lead the business his family founded 110 years ago. Bell-Carter will keep its name, its nearly 300 employees and all active contracts with 80-plus growers across 3,000 acres in Tehama and Tulare counties, the company said.
The change also forms a new alliance between two veteran olive-producing families—the Carters and the Escalantes—whose business relationship stretches back more than 30 years. Since 1991, Bell-Carter has been sourcing jarred green table olives from AG Olives’ factory in Seville, Spain.
“This acquisition is really the product of a very deep trust that the families have in one another, so that we can continue the Bell-Carter Foods name, mission and values,” Carter said.
AG Olives CEO Francisco “Paco” Escalante described the partnership as “more than just smart business. It’s a promise of even more growth and innovation.”
Escalante noted his long ties to the Carters: He was a 14-year-old exchange student learning English in the U.S. when he first got to know the family during a visit to Corning, where he toured the cannery and some of the region’s olive groves.
“Thirty years later, we are here with this alliance that just seemed the natural thing to do for both families,” Escalante said. “It’s driven by our mutual commitment to grow family, quality and innovation.”
As part of the deal, the Spanish olive oil cooperative Dcoop, a former partner of Bell-Carter, will hold a minority interest in the company.
Bell-Carter sold 20% of its share to Dcoop in 2018 and began buying more Spanish raw olives for processing. The following year, Bell-Carter terminated some 350 contracts with California growers, who accused the canner of using a loophole in a provision that allows it to avoid paying import tariffs on the raw olives.
Some growers found a home for their fruit with Tracy-based Musco Family Olive Co., the state’s other major table olive processor. But others have left the business.
Last year, Dcoop and two other related companies sued Bell-Carter, claiming they were induced to purchase their stake based on intentional misrepresentations of the processor’s inventory value, projected earnings and financial position.
With the acquisition of Bell-Carter, Tim Carter said the legal matter with Dcoop “has been resolved to the satisfaction of all parties.” Though Dcoop no longer supplies raw olives to Bell-Carter, Carter said the company has not changed its “necessary and successful implementation of a global sourcing model.” He said Bell-Carter will continue to buy olives from California growers and other countries in the European Union and elsewhere. Relying on global sources for raw olives has been key to Bell-Carter’s business and all U.S.-based olive producers, he added.
Meanwhile, state bearing acreage for table olives continues to decline, standing at 12,000 this year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That’s down from 16,000 acres in 2019.
Carter acknowledged he does not know what growers will do, but he said “we can remain committed, and we can continue investing in contracts, in the Corning plant and the stability for them as they consider the future of their olive groves.” He noted Bell-Carter this year changed most of its grower contracts from one-year evergreens to three- to five-year contracts.
Ed Curiel, who grows olives in Tehama County, is one grower who signed a multiyear contract with Bell-Carter. He said his family has been growing olives his whole life. Even though he has diversified into almonds and walnuts and has abandoned some of his olive orchards due to lack of water, Curiel said he expects he will always maintain some olive acreage and will continue selling the crop to Bell-Carter for as long as he can.
“There’s romanticism,” he said. “Olives have been good to my family for two or three generations now. It’s put food on the table. It’s putting my kids through school. We’re kind of loyal to the crop, to the company, to the town.”
As a former Bell-Carter grower who now sells to Musco, Tulare County farmer Chris Lange said he has continued to grow table olives because he has access to surface water and because the crop is “quite inexpensive to farm,” except for pruning and harvesting costs. He noted growers have been transitioning away from table olives for at least two decades, and he expects the trend to continue.
“Growers with land and water envision a higher per-acre return,” Lange said.
Tulare County Musco grower Rod Burkett said the industry has known for 20 years that there would not be enough olive acreage in the state to support the two processors. With the high cost of water, he said he thinks more growers—himself included—will pull their table-olive trees because the crop will not pencil out.
“I can see the handwriting on the walls,” he said. “You’re crazy to keep growing olives. You’re going to have to plant high-value crops to stay in the business in California.”
Meanwhile, Musco continues to promote its “million trees” initiative with free nursery stock to encourage growers to remove their existing orchards and plant new trees that could be mechanically harvested. Most of the state’s table olives remain hand-picked.
Dennis Burreson, Musco vice president of field operations and industry affairs, said the initiative has “far surpassed expectations and is setting the stage for the future.”
Unlike Bell-Carter, which has now transitioned completely to Spanish ownership and uses “only a small percentage of California acreage,” he said Musco remains committed to the California grower and relies “first and foremost on California-grown olives” and turns to imports to supplement the state crop when there is a production shortfall.
“We believe the future of the California table olive industry is extremely bright,” Burreson said.
(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at email@example.com.)