Olive orchards in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California.

Organic Olive Oil Farming

Really Organic, Really Sustainable Farming

True organic farming is respectful. It knows that the earth has its own wisdom, and makes a good partner in food production. The farmer’s role is to encourage the general direction in which particular crops wish to grow, and to nudge them further. By being attentive and helpful, the farmer is midwife to the healthiest plants; the healthiest plants, in turn, bring forth the most nutritious and flavorful fruit.

Steven Dambeck has been growing organically since the late 1970’s. His commercial crops include cherries, peaches, nectarines, pears, apples and the like. Although organic practices vary from crop to crop, and each year's new insights bring new experiments, there are three key, unchangeable concepts that govern his organic practices: the right plant in the right place, feeding the soil, protecting the ecology.

The Plant where it belongs

Our neighbor grows great apricots, while Steven's trees never quite flourish. His apricots lack the deep, harmonious flavors of the neighbor’s. No one has a good explanation for why this particular fruit doesn't grow well exactly there, but that’s the fact. So instead of fighting it, Steven just trades his terrific Redhaven peaches for the neighbkr’s terrific apricots, and everyone’s happy. A plant knows where it can flourish. A farmer is one who recognizes a tendency to flourish, and finds ways to assist that tendency. His practices then flow easily from a position of service.

The olive only really flourishes in a true Mediterranean climate, with which only 1.2% of the earth’s surface is blessed. Our little patch of the Sierra foothills falls into that tiny Mediterranean percentile, which gives us the possibility of exploring the great range of flavors and nuances offered by Old World varieties.

Since 1997 we have planted over 5,000 olive trees comprising some 44 varieties—French, Italian, Spanish, Greek, Tunisian—and have an ever-increasing sense of where each flourishes best. Leccino (Italian) and Tanche (French) do fine in the colder, low-lying areas; Koroneiki (Greek) produces more flavor in steep, rocky places; Picual (Spanish) grows eagerly in all local conditions, while Barouni (Tunisian) responds best to only the loamiest soils. As we verify the ideal locations for each variety, we transplant or graft to accommodate their individual requirements.

Nourishing the soil

When the right plant is growing in the right place, we trust its capacity to feed itself. What it needs from our intervention is a rich, vital, nourishing medium to mine for essential elements. It knows how much potassium it needs, and how much zinc; it doesn't need us to tell it. Annual tissue analysis confirms that a healthy soil contains virtually all the elements a tree needs, and in sufficient amounts. Let the tree, then, take as much as it wishes. We apply lots of compost to the field (not just within the dripline of the tree). We use horse manure (lots of horses hereabouts) and composted trimmings from local public works departments. We concentrate on getting strong stands of clover. Hykon rose clover works very well here, as do various subterranean clovers. We also work to keep the topsoil moist, to encourage the activity of earthworms and microbes. We apply foliar sprays--mostly fish emulsion and kelp--at intervals through the season as a boost.

Maintaining the integrity of the Ecosystem

When established within their appropriate ecosystem, plants protect themselves quite well from external threats. So, we oppose any pressure to disrupt that ecosystem. We like bugs, and snakes, and weeds (in moderation). When things are in balance, harmful pests cannot dominate. In a balanced situation like ours, the only significant pest of the olive is the olive fruit fly, which we monitor closely throughout the season. We confront it using species-specific attractants and by maintaining a high level of hygiene in the field to reduce over-wintering opportunities.

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