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Cliff Little of Corto Olive Oil: Five Strategies Our Company Is Using To Tackle Climate Change & Become More Sustainable

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Focus on quality versus low price makes decision-making much easier. If you always focus on doing what you believe is right, it makes your decision making MUCH easier.

As part of my series about companies who are helping to battle climate change, I had the pleasure of interviewing Cliff Little, president of Corto Olive Oil.

As President of Corto, Cliff Little oversees all olive tree farming, revolutionizing the crop through cultivation, experimentation, piloting and innovation. Cliff serves as a board member of the American Olive Oil Producers Association. Having grown up in the Napa Valley in a farming community, Little has been surrounded by agribusiness his whole life, which has encouraged his love of cooking and produce.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is the mission of your company? What problems are you aiming to solve?

Corto Olive Oil was founded to elevate the flavor of food with fresh, 100% California Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Nothing but goodness from grove to table. That’s what every chef in every restaurant and home deserves. Shockingly, according to a study done by UC Davis, 70% of olive oils on shelves are rancid — most commonly because they use overripe or rotten fruit that’s fallen to the ground and harvested in winter or because of exposure to light, heat, and air. Everything we do at Corto is to ensure our customers — who include some of the nation’s top chefs as well as home chefs everywhere — enjoy the freshest olive oil possible.

Can you tell our readers about the initiatives that you or your company are taking to address climate change or sustainability? Can you give an example for each?

Corto was founded by seventh-generation farmers whose roots stretch back to Italy. Taking care of the land is in their blood. By leveraging the power of nature and technology-driven harvesting, milling, and bottling practices, Corto guarantees the freshest, nutrient-dense oil while also helping to preserve our most precious resources and local ecosystems. The ultimate goal is to help forge a more sustainable agricultural future for California, especially during this devastating era of extreme drought and fire.

The interesting thing is that olives in and of themselves are an incredibly sustainable crop. In addition to requiring very little water — especially compared to some of California’s notoriously thirsty tree crops — olives actually sequester carbon! In fact, according to the International Olive Council, world production of olive oil absorbs the amount of carbon equivalent to 20 million vehicles annually. Further, olive trees store more carbon than the amount of carbon emitted during the entire olive oil production cycle. We reduce carbon emissions even further by powering our mill with solar. In fact, solar accounts for 100% of the mill’s energy in the summer months and 70% throughout the entire year.

Of course, Corto is also committed to conserving one of California’s most precious — and endangered — resources: Water. As I mentioned before, olives have evolved to be one of the most water-efficient crops in the world. But we actually improve on that through our Super-High Density growing technique, which reduces water consumption even further. In fact, Corto’s Super-High Density olives use on average 66% less water than leading California crops like almonds. Additionally, we rely on moisture monitors and 100% drip irrigation, which ensure we are using our precious water supply as efficiently as possible, and repurpose and recirculate water from our mill as irrigation throughout the farm.

And finally, we are committed to reducing waste throughout every stage of production, from the grove to the mill. In addition to reusing the mill’s wastewater to irrigate cover crops which in turn helps amend the soil and keep it healthy, we repurpose the olive pomace — the skins and pits that remain after the oil is extracted from the olive — as animal feed throughout the region.

Waste reduction also extends to once our olive oils make it to your kitchen: Our FlavorLock boxes keep light, heat and air out so your olive oil is fresh to the last drop and none goes to waste.

How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?

I think waste reduction/upcycling is a perfect example of how sustainability can open up new opportunities for profitability. Right now, we’re looking at the potential for our pomace to be used in new and different ways in our own operations as well as in products within other industries, including consumer products like pharmaceuticals and beauty to homewares and more. We’re excited about what the future might hold for these types of partnerships!

The youth led climate strikes of September 2019 showed an impressive degree of activism and initiative by young people on behalf of climate change. This was great, and there is still plenty that needs to be done. In your opinion what are 5 things parents should do to inspire the next generation to become engaged in sustainability and the environmental movement? Please give a story or an example for each.

1. Get them into gardening early. Kids learn a lot through doing, so just getting them to understand how to grow things and all the inputs involved and how that affects the foods we eat.

2. Documentaries — There are a lot of good ones out there about food and supply chain for parents to watch with their kids and have conversations about. I found that provokes a lot of conversations with my kids. Documentaries on climate change are great too. NatGeo has a lot of great ones, not focusing on ag in general, but rainforests and showing what we are doing as humans to impact those environments.

3. Get involved! A lot of local ag organizations like FFA (Future Farmers of America) and local youth ag organizations are starting to talk about the environment and the effect food has on the environment. I think education at a young age matters.

4. Teach them about the importance of not wasting food and recycling. Corto’s unique packaging is all about keeping things fresh — less spoil and waste — it’s an important thing to demonstrate for kids. Also, it’s not too difficult to get your kids into composting — you can turn it into something that you can repurpose to enhance soil — a way of upcycling those things that you don’t fully consume.

5. Show them how to be a more mindful consumer. One thing as a household we did was to convert from purchasing batteries to buying rechargeable ones. Understanding there are things you can do personally and can benefit from also — make a big impact.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?

 1. To focus on learning from success AND failures. That applies to any sustainable focus. There are a lot of headwinds in life. When you take both winnings and failures as learning opportunities it goes a long way. Success is driven through teaching. The more that you can teach and motivate others, the more impact and success you can drive.

2. Listen to your peers and recognize that past experiences can be very helpful in coming upon and working through challenges.

3. Focus on doing something you’re passionate about. It makes it easier to move along when you do come to challenges.

4. Invest as much as you can in your people. If you put your employees/customers first in business that’s what I found drives the most success. Not putting profits first. Put people at the forefront of your mission.

5. Focus on quality versus low price makes decision-making much easier. If you always focus on doing what you believe is right, it makes your decision making MUCH easier.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My father — also named Cliff. Probably his main guidance — if you always focus on doing what you know is right, you never have to worry about making the right/wrong decision — you’ll know you did things with the right intention. It always brings more success — or it has to me. That’s a guidepost he put in front of me. It’s better to love people than to hate people. If you just try and enjoy everyone you’re working with you’re going to appreciate your life more.

You are a person of great influence and doing some great things for the world! If you could inspire a movement that would bring the greatest amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I think it would be creating a sustainable food supply. Our population keeps growing, more people need a supply of food to be healthy, and live fulfilling lives, and I think farmers are very important to that process and to the livelihoods — finding that balance or that opportunity to create a sustainable food supply. If we could get all sides onboard — consumers and producers it would have A HUGE IMPACT.

Do you have a favorite life lesson quote? Can you tell us how that was relevant to you in your own life?

MIKE TYSON — “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.”

You have to be prepared and be flexible to take that first punch and realize it sets you back and keep looking for ways to adjust and get better. You don’t get to let down when things go wrong the first time.

What is the best way for people to follow you on social media?


This was so inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!