September 28, 2014

Grumpy Goats Olive Orchard

A very, very old olive tree

There are a few olive trees that are reputed to be the oldest non-clonal trees in the world. Local Lebanese folklore claims that these Sisters Olive Trees of Noah - yes, that Noah - are 5,000 or 6,000 years old. At 3-5 years of age, the olive trees I visited at Grumpy Goats Farm in the Capay Valley of California are mere babes in arms. At one ton of olives per acre, these young trees have a few years to go before reaching maturity, when they will produce 3-4 tons per acre. But according to Pamela Marvel, her trees are already producing olives for Best-In-Show olive oil.

Grumpy Goats Farm is Pamela's idea of retirement. She made the jump from information technology to olive-growing about 6 years ago. With her husband, Stuart Littell, she took a 20 acre hay field and transformed 8 acres of it to an olive orchard. Their olive trees are certified organic. They use native grasses as a cover crop within the orchard. They bring in organic fertilizer from nearby Jepson Prairie Organics. To conserve water, they installed a drip irrigation system.
With the help of an EQIP grant from the NCRS - what used to be known as the Soil Conservation Service - they put in a native plant hedgerow. This hedgerow protects the land from erosion and water loss, as well as providing better wildlife habitat. And the orchard is a certified wildlife habitat. Pamela and Stuart are excellent stewards of their land.

Pamela Stuart of Grumpy Goats Farm

Since the United States is not a big producer of olives, I wondered if there was any big equipment to help automate olive production. Pamela explained that most nearby olive growers plant their trees more densely. They mimic the smaller spacing of a vineyard, and they plant a dwarf variety of olive. Then they harvest with modified grape harvesters. Not so Grumpy Goats Farm. They harvest by hand. And then there is the milling. Grumpy Goats grows olives for the olive oils they produce, so they need a public miller - someone to extract oil from the olives. They use a mill that is two hours away. Olive oil quality decreases in proportion to how long the olives must wait between harvesting and extraction at the mill. I would imagine that all the nearby olive growers want to use the mill at about the same exact time. Consequently, the timing of mill extraction is extremely important. Pamela says there were four harvest/mill days last year. Since Grumpy Goats Farm picks all their olives by hand, they needed a large crew of about fifty people on those days in order to pick the fruit quickly and rush it to the mill, thus ensuring the finest quality oil.

This brings me to the issue of farm laborers. Farms are sustainable when they are environmentally supportive, financially viable, and socially equitable. Social equity rests, to a large extent, on how farmers are treated. Grumpy Goats Farm does not need much of a staff. But four days a year, their needs loom large. They use a farm labor contractor to supply about fifty workers on those four harvest days. According to A Research and Outreach Agenda for Agricultural Workers in California, 50% of California farm laborers are hired directly by farm owners, and the other 50% are hired by intermediary operations that go by various names - farm labor contractors, custom service providers, etc. I asked Pamela if she felt the labor contractor she partnered with treated their employees well. When she hires workers directly, she pays a couple of dollars above the California minimum wage. But Pamela wasn't sure what the contractor paid workers. She did not know whether most of the workers were migrants or whether they were in this country legally. And I got the sense that she assumed that the contractor was abiding by legal fair labor requirements. If somebody else is taking care of all the details, this is an easy assumption to make. But, from what I've read, it might not be a correct assumption.

Farm labor contractors have a reputation for being responsible for many forms of abuse, including non-payment of minimum wage, withholding pay and charging extra for transportation, food or lodging. Agriculture can be a hazardous occupation. Farm employees are often afraid to complain about health and safety problems because of fear of employer retaliation. The limited legal protections and fear of employer retaliation coupled with additional factors, such as frequent mobility, poverty, inadequate training, language barriers, and unfamiliarity with American law, result in many, preventable injuries. Since Grumpy Goats Farm is certified organic, their workers are not exposed to nasty pesticides, so that is one health factor that is under Pamela's control. Going forward, Pamela might be in a position to advocate for additional worker protections. For instance, there are some farms that negotiate above minimum-wage rates and supervise the workers directly in a safe and respectful manner.

Before planting their land, Pamela and Stuart considered what they could grow that would let them get away for a few weeks now and then. They decided on orcharding. Olives had some complexity as to how to tweak the oil to get it just right. This appealed to Pamela. She ordered any and all olive oils she could get her hands on. At one point, she had a collection of 50 or 60 different oils. Pamela says there are thousands of varieties of olives, but only several hundred that people grow. I got a quick lesson in olive oil tasting.

Think wine-tasting and you are headed in the right direction. There are three tastes to an olive: a general fruitiness, a pungency that you taste on the back of the tongue, and bitterness on the sides of the tongue. You use cute blue cups to taste the various oils. Massaging the cup as you turn it in your hands gently heats it. Pamela and Stuart decided to create a robust oil. Such oils are healthier and harder to find. They settled on two main olive varieties. Oil from a Picual cultivar of southern Spain is described as "a moderately robust oil, with tomato leaf flavors, well balanced bitter and spicy notes, and a distinct pungency that recalls figs" on the goodeggs website. Oil from a Coratina cultivar of southern Italy is described as "a robust oil, with big fresh green fruit with hints of wheatgrass and apple, and a peppery finish." These varieties can also tolerate a freeze, which is not true of all olives, but necessary in the Capay Valley. Grumpy Goats Farm trees look healthy and their oils are prize-winning. Their Coratina oil received its highest accolade just this year, with Best-of-Show in the Domestic-Robust category of the preeminent Los Angeles Olive Oil Competition.

On any given farm, the choice of which variety to grow contributes to its sustainability. For example, growing water-loving strawberries in a drought-stricken area is not a great choice. Pamela chose olive varieties based on their taste and rarity, hoping this would make them easier to sell. Additionally, olives are well-suited to the area. The words California and drought seem to increasingly comingle. Once established, olives are relatively drought-tolerant. In fact, Pamela mentioned that deficit watering of olives potentially improves the final taste. In other words, it is beneficial to use a little less water. Olives also enjoy the well-drained soils of the area. Although Pamela did not pick varieties based on resistance to the olive fruit fly, it turns out she picked a good location. Grumpy Goats Farm is in a very hot area. Pamela expects summers with 5 days over 105°F and several over 110°F. This seems to keep the fruit flies at bay. Nearby olive orchards that don't experience such temperature extremes had such severe infestations last year that they lost their entire crop. Picking the right location for a particular crop and the right crop for a particular location helps reduce the need for inputs such as water and pesticides. In choosing to grow olives, not only does Pamela grow olives that taste good, but she has made a more sustainable choice as well.

Where to find Grumpy Goats Olive Oil in California and nationwide: