"Orchard Beautification Project"

It’s the very beginning of summer and with the summer solstice taking place this week, we had the chance to start work at first light—5:15 am. Our new orchard had taken a couple of hits during last summer’s heat and last winter’s hard freeze, so there were trees to pull out and others to cut back to sturdy suckers in hopes they would join the ranks of “come-backers.”

Rich took charge of pruning the canopy and deciding which trees weren’t going to make it, in addition to pulling out the extra bamboo stakes, T-posts and rebar. Lianne worked from below, pruning the unneeded suckers away from the base of the trees and clearing weeds around the trunks to give them air. Hundreds of lady bugs who had taken refuge from the heat in the leafy suckers, had to scurry further up the trees to find shade. The earwigs just ran. After six days of working from pre-dawn to noon, we were quite pleased with the results and could envision the new orchard’s potential to produce enough olives to significantly boost our oil production in the not too distant future.

With renewed confidence in these four and a half acres, we made the major decision to transition the new orchard from conventional to organic methods. From now on, all fertilizers and pest treatments will be certified organic. As for the weeds, we will keep cover cropping to control them and then mow, mow, mow.

We are also encouraged about the fruit set in the “old orchard.” Though they are about the size of capers now, the olives look plentiful. Based on past experience, we probably aren’t seeing the entire crop emerge yet. A lot of variables can affect our harvest, but along with neighboring olive producers we feel more confident there will be a better crop than in 2018. Here’s hoping the quality and flavor of the oil will remain excellent as well.

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Fast Forward to Late Spring

Lake County is probably at its most beautiful in May. The mountains that ring the County are full of wildflower blooms: poppies, blue, white, and yellow lupine, native penstemon, Indian Paint Brush, pink spineflowers, whisker brush, plus many more. The poppies and lupine blanket the now green hillsides off Highway 175 which had burned last summer. The flowers carpeting the new green grass under the blackened branches of the scrub brush present a unique beauty that shows off Nature’s hopeful side.

Here on the farm we are taking advantage of warmish days and cool nights to get a lot of work done. In fact the entire Big Valley is buzzing with activity, including tractor work that starts at 2:00 am in the morning.

Our project this week has been to plant about 100 new olive trees to replace those that succumbed to below 20-degree temperatures last winter. We lost quite a few trees in the “new” orchard so that replacement planting will likely go on for the next couple of years.

With good advice from our local UC Extension orchard advisor, we developed a “12-step program” for carefully planting the new trees. The elements are simple enough: breaking apart the tree’s root ball and spreading the roots in native soil mixed with a little clay soil conditioner; watering and gently tamping the tree in; lightly staking the tree so it can move a little in the wind, helping it to build caliper (thickness); and finally generously surrounding the tree with a good three-inch thick layer of playground chips for mulch, being careful to pull the mulch away from the base of the tree. Why playground wood chips? Because CCOF approves of this type of mulch for organic operations. If it’s good enough for children to play on, then it’s fine for the trees to grow in. In addition the new trees will eventually get a coat of orchard milk paint to prevent sun scald next winter.

Next week it’s back to basic farm maintenance: mowing, pruning trees, monitoring the irrigation, and as Rich calls it, “our orchard beautification program,” which consists of re-staking bent-over trees, removing the dead ones, and suckering the trees.

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Spring Is Blossoming

When we’ve had this much rain, the flowers are bound to follow. We may have to wait to plant our next set of young olive trees and the long-planned-for hedgerow because it’s too wet to dig and till, but these lovely gifts in the woods mean a lot at this time of year when spring seemed so long in coming.

About that hedgerow: We have grants from the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s Healthy Soil Program and the United States Department of Agriculture’s Environmental Incentives Program (EQIP) to plant a hedgerow along our western fence and to plant a cover crop in the orchard for the next three years.

EQIP helps agricultural producers confront challenges such as pests and adverse weather, all the while conserving natural resources like soil, water and air. The Healthy Soil Program grants fund conservation practices that improve soil health and sequester carbon. The cover crop will also help with our soil improvement plan, which is overseen by CCOF, our organic certifying agency.

The hedgerow will provide more biodiversity at our farm. We’ll be planting ceanothus, elderberry, California buckwheat, yarrow—among other native plants—and hope to see an increase in beneficial insects, quail, gopher snakes and other wildlife. An added benefit is the hedgerow’s dense growth and height at maturity will trap drifting agricultural pollutants from the west.

Winter Orchard Maintenance

What goes on at a farm during the winter? Whenever it’s not raining we need to be out in the orchard making sure that the trees are in good shape. Strong winds hit Lake County frequently during winter storms and our young trees in the new orchard took a hit this year. This weekend we spent re-staking and re-tying about 80 trees. Some needed the strength of T-posts to get them back to an upright position and firmly planted in the ground again.

Once we get tools put away from that job, we get out the clippers and pruning shears and begin to sucker the trees. Once the weather is a little warmer Rich gets serious about pruning the trees with his sawzall.

Starting in March, we will be checking every week to see if budding has started because then it will be time to apply an organic foliar spray to the old orchard to encourage fruit development.


Not Enough of a Good Thing....

Alas, for fans of our 2018 oil, we’ve sold out! We had a smaller production year for our olives, which was true of olive harvests throughout California in 2018. We also had instant demand once we bottled oil because 2018 was an especially fine oil. We are doing everything we can to ensure we have a good harvest next fall so we have enough for everyone. We’ll be experimenting with an organic foliar spray for the first time. We’ll let you know here and on Facebook when our 2019 oil is ready.


Spring 2018 Tree Planting

We’ve finally finished planting our 9 plus acres of olive trees! Victor Silva, all-around farmhand, planted the last trees brought up from the Bay Area home nursery. He’s been working over the past four weeks to set in the newest 250 trees. Irrigation is turned on and the baby blue grow tubes adorn the newest trees. We discovered a black bird nest in the miniature forest of new trees we’d set by the barn before planting. We devised a fake tree with field fencing and olive tree prunings and carefully moved the nest. The transition was successful and we’ll see in about a week how many baby birds hatch from the six speckled eggs.


The 2017 Harvest Year

Every year up until 2017, we’ve had friends and family gatherings to harvest our crop. After a couple of mornings of handpicking olives into our harvest buckets, we were done and ready for celebration with food and drink.

This year, our trees have matured to the point where the harvest was more than our friendly, communal gathering could handle. Enter Milagros Castro and her harvest crew. After a long day of work on a chilly November 18th we drove our nearly two tons of olives to the Chacewater Olive Mill, where the olives were milled into oil that night.