My thoughts on what I’ve learned in the past few years of making olive oil
I grew up in the middle of green fields in Wales during the 90’s. All around me was farmland owned by one farmer and his family. During the middle of the decade he began the transition to organic farming methods. My family was very happy to hear the news as we lived among the crops which would no longer be sprayed with various chemicals. Alongside this we all welcomed the increase in the welfare of the animals (sheep and cattle) who grazed the considerable farmlands.
It was not long into the transition that we noticed that the natural hedgerows (mostly consisting of blackthorn shrubs and a few deciduous trees) began disappearing . When questioned about this the farmer stated that he had to do it order in order to qualify as organic and continue receive farming subsidies. These were natural hedgerows, home to a great deal of natural habitat and shelter for animals of all sizes. They were razed to the ground and replanted. Even now they are only a fraction of the size they were before and it will be many more years before they grow back to their original glory.
Young me noticed that there was a disconnection here between the farming regulations that demanded replanting of ancient hedgerows in order to conform to exact standards and this disconnection continues today in the olive world, although thankfully the soil association has begun to recognise the importance of hedgerows in its organic manifest.
When visiting high street shops and other retailers I am often asked the same question: “Why isn’t your oil Organic?”. The reason I cite most often is that in order to gain certification, we would very likely have to make wholesale changes to the wild areas of the grove. The grove was planted hundreds of years ago and is more a forest than farm. The trees are not lined in up in rows and are planted at least 9 metres in order to give their roots room to grow. It is home to birds, insects and animals who live amongst the branches and roots. This is in stark contrast to other groves (even organic) who rely too much on more modern planting and farming methods. Artificial watering and other methods end up creating a mono-culture of olive trees. Over time, essential nitrates are leaked from the soils which impacts the trees as well as the insect life and the creatures that feed upon them. Whilst organic farming can certainly help to alleviate and in certain circumstances eliminate this occurrence, for us to adopt it fully would require a complete rethink into how natural habitat is treated under organic regulations.
Whilst harsh chemical fertilizers are undoubtedly a massive obstacle to sustainable farming methods it is incredibly important to realise that farming in a bio diverse manner is not as simple as foregoing fertilizers completely. There is so much more that can and must be done to assist nature in its growth and prosperity alongside our own. Myself and Ilias are learning everyday but working on this ancient grove has certainly shown us that a lot of the answers to modern day farming problems come from the past.