Photographer Michal Venera harvests help for California fire victims

Commercial photographer Michal Venera has long been entranced by the beautiful rolling hills of northern California, even building his business out of a light-filled barn in Petaluma. So when fires ravaged Northern California earlier this year, he knew he wanted to help. His opportunity came in unexpected form: olive oil.

“I have a little ranch out here with olive trees,” says Michal. “Last year I pressed maybe 20 gallons and it was amazing. But this year my aging neighbor, who has a huge orchard, was looking for someone to take it over. I thought, what am I going to do with all this oil, and then the fires started and I thought, ok, we can do something here.”
What he did was hatch a plan to harvest and press incredibly high quality olive oil, selling it to his network of friends and colleagues and donating 100% of the profits to fire victims. Word got around quickly and soon Michal’s enterprise was in full swing.
The full-time photographer and his girlfriend, Minhsing, had to take a crash course in organizing pickers, insurance, transport and same-day pressing. “I was doing photo shoots during the day then driving fresh-picked olives to Sonoma for an overnight press,” he recalls.
With hundreds of gallons pressed, Michal threw a pick-up party for over 100 people who came and tasted the oil, bottled it and applied his custom labels. “You could pay up to $300 per gallon for oil of this quality,” says Michal. “We did it for $100 a gallon and it sold out in a week.” They made over $4000 for fire victims and, he says, “we had a lot of fun doing it.”

Michal is now back behind the camera full time. You can see the fruits of those labors here.

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