Field Report #5

From: Robin and Kathryn at Fat Gold

Greetings from Fat Gold!

In previous field reports, we’ve talked about different steps in the process of growing olives and making oil—things we were learning, sometimes struggling with, and ultimately figuring out.

This summer, we encountered a problem so big—so totally beyond our control—that there would be no figuring it out.

Are you ready for the reality of farming?

I’ll walk you through it just as we experienced it.

First, in late spring, Kathryn noticed that the trees weren’t showing any of the buds that would become flowers that would become fruit. There were a few, here and there—but not the profusion we remembered from last year.

They were late, maybe?

Weeks rolled by, and still: no buds.

At this point, we began to worry. We made an inventory of all the things we might have done wrong. Had we pruned the trees too aggressively, putting them into some kind of shock? Had our watering schedule been too miserly? Had we made some critical mistake a whole year ago that was only now revealing itself?

All of this was plausible. This is only our second year in the grove; for as much as we’ve learned, there’s so much we don’t know.

We knew what the problem wasn’t. Sometimes in a grove, trees will blossom, but then a storm will roll through and rip the flowers away, interrupting the process of pollination. This wasn’t that; there were no buds to begin with.

More weeks passed, and because there had been no buds, there were no flowers, and no fruit.

Then, news began to trickle in:

The same thing had happened to groves across the region. Big groves, small groves; everybody was noticing the same problem, and it ranged from a major drop in production to a near-absence of fruit. Olive trees are alternate-bearing, so everyone expects a heavy crop to be followed by one that’s a little lighter, but this is different. In our part of California, it’s borderline catastrophic.

We’ve heard different theories to explain it. The one that sounds most convincing is an unlucky sequence of temperatures late in the winter. First, an unseasonably hot stretch in February, which signaled to the the trees: “It’s time to bud!” Then, a sudden plunge into cold in March, which stopped that process in its tracks, scrambling the trees’ circuits.

For us, the result is a grove basically devoid of fruit:

Conspicuous lack of olives

(That branch should be dripping with olives.)

Maybe one tree in ten has a smattering of fruit. Instead, the trees have turned all their efforts toward vegetation. And, I have to say, they look GREAT! Bushy, vigorous, and bright green. Some of them have sprouted huge, mutant clusters of suckers low on their trunks; you can FEEL the surfeit of energy, just looking for somewhere to go.

Reaching for the sun

If this sounds bad: it is!

We knew that one day Fat Gold would outgrow the capacity of this tiny, three-acre grove. Our notion was that we would source olives and olive oil from other producers who we love, and whose work passes Kathryn’s very high bar for quality. By combining oil from these Friends of Fat Gold with the oil from our own trees, we could gradually expand to supply more subscribers and more stores.

Well, I’m glad we at least daydreamed about that plan, because now we have to put it into action, much sooner than we imagined.

The experience has been stressful and disappointing, and if Fat Gold was a different kind of company, we’d probably keep it to ourselves. This Field Report would be generic and upbeat: “Working hard in the grove!” But, a key part of our approach from the beginning has been to document the process—all of it—and share an up-close view of how olive oil gets made at this scale.

Maybe not surprisingly, this calamity has made me appreciate last year’s oil even more. Our subscribers’ next shipment, which will go out in late September, will be the last of the oil from the 2018 harvest. Preview: it’s gooood!

The NEXT shipment after that, in January, is a puzzle we’re going to spend the fall figuring out. This lack of olives is a regional affliction, so we won’t be the only ones on the hunt for fresh, healthy fruit and well-made oil. It’s going to be tricky. Conversations have begun. One thing is certain: we won’t accept anything that’s not as great as the olive oil we produced from the 327 trees in the Fat Gold grove.

If there’s an upside to any of this, it’s that we’re excited to build relationships with people growing olive varieties different from the ones we have in Sunol, so we can offer our subscribers some new flavors!

In the meantime, we are diligently watering the grove. We’ve tested the trees’ leaves to ensure they’re getting the nutrition they need. We’re still battling gophers and, to my dismay, the olive fly, which has had no problem finding the little bit of fruit that’s out there.

The grove really does look great! We’re deep into California’s crispy season now, so the lush grass and wildflowers have all dried up and blown away, leaving golden dirt and green, green trees.

–Robin and Kathryn

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