Olive groves span nearly 500 acres of the Yocha Dehe Valley, the ancestral homelands of the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation. (Courtesy Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation)
This article originally appeared in the June 2019 “Tourism, Agriculture & Natural Resources” print edition of Native Business Magazine.
The Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation planted its first high-density olive groves in the Capay Valley of Northern California in 2008. Three years later, the Tribe harvested its first olives. Their quality was so exquisite, the Tribe quickly abandoned its plan to sell to third-party producers, and instead custom built a state-of-art olive mill from Florence, Italy.
Olives are grown within a few miles of the 13,400-square-foot mill, which presses extra-virgin olive oil for the Tribe’s brand Séka Hills, named in honor of Tribal culture. “Séka,” meaning “blue” in the Tribe’s Patwin language, honors the blue hills that overlook the Capay Valley. About 20 regional growers also process their olives at the Tribe’s mill.
Today, the Tribe’s premium, extra-virgin olive oil is used in more than 300 restaurants across the West Coast and the Southwest, including at the famed Chez Panisse in California, and the Séka Hills brand is sold in over 700 specialty shops and retail stores throughout much of the United States and in Japan.
“We knew when we began building an agricultural operation, it would take years of work, commitment and investment,” Anthony Roberts, Tribal Chairman of the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, told Native Business. “And, now, a little more than 10 years later, we are beginning to see the results. Our crops are doing well, with new plantings expanding our capacity. Our Séka Hills products, with a focus on and commitment to premium quality, have gained traction in the marketplace.”
In 2015, the Tribe opened the doors to its first multi-use tasting room inside the mill facility. A satellite tasting room at the Old Sugar Mill in Clarksburg debuted in June 2017. The addition of the tasting rooms catalyzed Tribal agri-tourism and offered the opportunity for the Tribe to share its unique story with visitors, including its rich history and deep roots in the sun-drenched rural valley, located about an hour’s drive northwest of Sacramento.
“The Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation has a deep connection with the beautiful and fertile land of the Capay Valley. It has provided for our people for hundreds of years and the commitment to protect it has been passed onto us over generations,” said Chairman Roberts.
While extra-virgin olive oil anchors the Séka Hills product line, the brand offers an entire line of premium agricultural products produced from the Tribe’s homeland, including Séka Hills Wildflower Honey, beef jerky, seasoned nuts, hummus and pickled asparagus.
“Our produce program is all organic. We grow organic asparagus, tomatoes, squash and wheat,” said Jim Etters, director of land management for the Tribe. “Everything we do, except for the balsamic vinegar, is estate grown.”
Last year, the Tribe formed the Séka Hills Club to market its wide array of agricultural products under the Séka Hills brand to regional consumers. “For a small to mid-size specialty foods producer, direct-to-consumer sales are vital,” explained Etters.
Wine also rounds out the Séka Hills line. The Tribe’s first wine, the 2010 Viognier wine, received high accolades and continues to do so with each vintage. The Tribe recently expanded its wine portfolio, adding a Syrah and a Tanat — red grape varietals that thrive in the hot, Mediterranean-style climate of the Capay Valley.
While Séka Hills Arbequina Olive Oil, Wild Flower Honey and wines are distributed to restaurants and specialty retail stores, other Séka Hills products are exclusive to the Tasting Rooms and sold online at sekahills.com.
As the Séka Hills brand expands to new markets, agriculture will not only empower the Yocha Dehe people economically, it will benefit the Tribal homelands and generations of Yocha Dehe members to come.
“By working the land responsibly, as good stewards, we can simultaneously protect the land for future generations and diversify our business portfolio,” said Chairman Roberts. “It is a great fit for our culture, our people and our future.”