All for the Love of Olive Oil

The first time Gayle Alexander and Wanda Swenson spread out their new olive harvest netting, our minds melded as we flashed on the space-time continuum. The net’s grids and folds reminded us of cosmic and micro relationships. Since our focus here is local olive harvests, we imagine it is theoretically possible to map coordinates for the place and time of each harvest gathering and each picker’s interaction with each other and with each olive.

Before our hyper awareness flies more out of control, though, we inform you that this essay is simply a brief history of harvests from four Cazadero hills olive ranches: Las Sirenas (Gayle and Wanda,) Olive Branch Farm (Peter and Sieglinde Fels,) Best Dog Ranch (Ricky and Cathy Tokubo,) and Whey Behind Farm (Alan Beckwith and Marcella Robinson.) Jim and I have joined the picking crews for at least 16 years of harvests and have reaped many photos from all four ranches.

For our first few harvests with Peter and Sieglinde, we wore cloth aprons. Instead of photos, we have this folk-style painting.

Since then, neighbors and friends from near and far have been lending a hand.

A few years later, the four ranches purchased and shared buckets with straps.

Tree and ladder climbers strip the high branches.

The hand here is playing around picking with an elegant flourish.

Gathered around the trees and hidden behind foliage, we recognize voices of old friends. Socializing with new friends while being industrious has a special, relaxed charm. Pauses and quiet spaces are not awkward. We pick and think about what has been said, then launch into further conversations as we are moved to do so. Beneath the trees, sunny weather is a pleasure. When rainy, we reach up to strip high branches. Even though cold water trickles down our sleeves, esprit de corps remains high.

The olives look and feel beautiful. We are pleased to be harvesting one of the most healthy oils on earth. Cathy Tokubo’s olive ranch history includes more on health benefits from olives, i.e. help with reducing inflammation and decreasing risks of heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Her story is at the bottom of the page.

The film of oil feels good on our hands.

The next big tech update for local olive farmers is the net. Here comes Gayle with a new ooolala olive fashion statement.

She and Wanda learn how to manage and configure the net in the most efficient way.

Overlapping the panels allows the olives to roll downhill and make collection easier.

Clips secure the net close to the base of the trunk so that no olives slip onto the ground.

Rakes with short and long handles speed up combing olives from branches onto the net.

Wanda gives a demo.

The last few years olive ranchers have employed a tree-shaker that sounds like whirring wings of a giant flicka-flicka-flicka-clicka-flicka insect. Leaves, dust, and olives fly everywhere.

I could hold the tree-shaker only a few minutes–it rattles arms and shoulder joints as if it were a jackhammer. The young people are strong and have stamina.

Herding rolling olives into the bin with your cohorts is the most fun.

We fill all the bins in record-breaking time.

Strong guys carry and dump the bins into the half-ton bin on the ATV.

Cathy Tokubo grins as we near harvest completion.

The giant blower separates leaves from olives, which are presented to the miller the next day.

We are delighted by small surprises such as the way Leo and Lisa Smith sort olives for their aesthetic pleasure.

Every harvest features extraordinary culinary experiences. I regret not taking photos of gorgeous scones, buns, cookies, cauldrons of fabulous soups, chilies and stews. Here is Alan’s grand daughter, Trinity Rose, rolling out the pizza dough, which will be handsomely adorned and baked in a wood-fired oven.

Musical entertainment is also a huge bonus.

If you know who these musicians are, please tell us.

Alex Wielemans from Belgium and Kamele N-goni Mondingo from Mali travel around the world–here they are in Alan Beckwith’s orchard.

Close-up of their handi-work:

Musicians create extraordinary vibrations within our space-time network.

***

Local residents may purchase olive oil by connecting with the space-time continuum network for olives, which is listed below. (I have been advised to substitute the email @ symbol with “at” as a security strategy. When writing the actual email address, you know what to do.)

The label is adapted from artist John Fox’s painting of the Las Sirenas orchard. Las Sirenas translates from Italian to “mermaids.”

Contact: Gayle Alexander and Wanda Swenson–lassirenasoliveoil “at” gmail.com

Las Sirenas olive oil is sold at Two Fish Bakery at Stewart’s Pt., Cazadero General Store and Duncan Mills General Store.

Gayle writes: Our olive oil story began in 1996 when we bought 75 olive trees made up of 4 Italian varietals, Leccino, Frantoio, Maurino and Pendolino from Ridgely Evers of De Vero Farms in Healdsburg. It’s been a fun, interesting, yummy adventure. Back in 1999 we had an opportunity to visit the area where our trees came from and learn about the wonderful collaboration the olive oil families of Tuscany share together. We came home with cuttings from 800 year-old trees.

Our friend Earl suggested our brand name “Las Sirenas” when I worked for the San Francisco Fire Department on the Surf Rescue Unit. The name has further significance because at that time both Wanda and I were spending a lot of time surfing and boogy boarding at Salmon Creek near Bodega Bay and Ocean Beach in San Francisco–mermaids resonated with us. We were so pleased when several years ago, local artist John Fox asked if he could paint our olive grove. We chose his beautiful depiction of our grove to become our label with the skillful help of Stephanie Endsley. With much gratitude, each harvest brings us together with dear friends who come to help us pick, laugh and party among the olive trees along Mitoma Way.

***

Olive Branch Farm has received awards for oil and for this label created by Sieglinde Fels.

Contact: Peter and Sieglinde Fels–sieglinde “at” olivebranchfarm.net

***

The award-winning Best Dog Ranch label was created by Sandra Maresca from Guerneville

Contact: Ricky and Cathy Tokubo–clt “at” bestdogranch.net

Cazadero General Store and Duncans Mills General Store carry Best Dog Ranch oil.

Cathy writes:

Best Dog Olive Oil is named after, Hazel, our McNab and Hound mix who lived with us at the time we were being seduced by the magic of the olive. We and other dog lovers know that unconditional dog love is a major harmony of life. She is on the label of our bottles carrying an olive branch.

The start of Best Dog Ranch Olive Oil was blessed with timing. In the late 1990’s we decided we wanted to grow olives. Our property is quite steep and there is not an abundance of water. Olives seemed like a crop that might do well in these conditions. As we researched we became entranced with the tree, the fruit, and its history. We found that there were others who were also looking into growing olives for oil production. While olives have a long history in California, this renewed interest brought new varieties, increased curiosity in the flavors of those varieties, and notice in the health benefits of the oil made from olives.

Most oils are highly processed. Olive oil is the juice of the olive. It is considered the healthiest oil to use in your diet. It is full of polyphenols. Polyphenols are compounds that have many health benefits. They act like antioxidants reducing inflammation and decreasing risks of heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Olive oil is tasty, it enhances the flavors in food. Better than a spoonful of sugar, olive oil is the tasty medicine.

Just a few years earlier, Nan McEvoy started McEvoy Ranch, a beautiful place outside of Petaluma. She was one of the early pioneers in the modern movement of California Olive Oil production. I was working for Elena Scola on Muniz Ranch. She too was considering growing olives for oil. Her enthusiasm was the needed spark to make Best Dog Ranch Olive Oil happen. At McEvoy Ranch Elena, Ricky and I found they not only started trees for themselves, but we could also buy trees they had propagated. Nan McEvoy liked the flavor of the varieties grown in Tuscany, Italy. She brought in mostly Leccino, Pendolino and Frantoio scion wood from there. The flavor of this oil was unlike anything we had tasted before. It was love! Elena bought 100 trees. We bought 20. From that 20 we took cuttings to start more trees. I decided to experiment and added cuttings from my parent’s ranch in the central valley. They had Manzanillo (Manzanilla) trees growing along the property line of their ranch. The Manzanillo olive was brought here by the Spanish. While it originated in Spain, it has become known as the California olive because of its use in the canning industry. It is a dual-purpose olive. It produces a fine oil along with its attributes for canning. Some years later, we added Piqual, another Spanish variety. While we have experimented with a few other varieties to make our oil blend, these five varieties make up the main flavors in our oil.

As we began this adventure we were fortunate to find that more neighbors were also putting in olive trees. This is no small part of why we enjoy growing olives. We have been growing with the trees. The trees have knitted our friendships with our neighbors. Early on we found ourselves taking classes with Gayle and Wanda of Las Sirenas and Peter and Sieglinde of Olive Branch Farm. Paul Vossen, now Farm Advisor Emeritus of Sonoma and Marin Counties, was our advisor. He introduced us to other producers, growing techniques, and very importantly how to taste oils. His classes with UC Davis Extension were fun and formative in our education toward making a tasteful product. We milled our first olives together. We have helped each other with harvests and we continue to learn. We have, each of us, won awards for our oils. But our biggest thrill has been doing this together. As the industry has grown, so have we. There are now more folks who are growing their trees for table use and oil, both commercially or just for themselves, including our close neighbors, Alan and Marcella. California is a great place to grow olives. We like to think that Cazadero is the very best place to grow olives, to share what we learn and reap the rewards of it all.

***

Alan Beckwith’s label was created by Kathleen O’Neill from Bolinas

Contact: Alan Beckwith and Marcella Robinson–ftrvfdguy “at” gmail.com

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8 thoughts on “All for the Love of Olive Oil

  1. Thanks, Gretchen! What a fun read that was! When I was in Israel (Jerusalem) over New Year’s 2013-2014 for a retreat with Thomas Hubl, two friends and I stayed a couple of days at the YWCA there. And every morning for breakfast there were olives and cheese, along with more ordinary fare i.e. eggs, bagels, etc.. But I loved olives in the morning and this winter I’ve been enjoying them again. No matter what else I have for breakfast. Thank goodness Trader Joe’s never runs out of them …..

    Happy Holidays! Happy upcoming Solstice and Christmas and New Year’s, too!

    Much love to you and Jim, Margaret

    On Sat, Dec 11, 2021 at 5:25 PM Gretchen Butler Wild Art wrote:

    > Gretchen Butler posted: ” The first time Gayle Alexander and Wanda Swenson > spread out their new olive harvest netting, our minds melded as we flashed > on the space-time continuum. The net’s grids and folds reminded us of > cosmic and micro relationships. Since our focus here is loca” >

    Like

  2. Hi Gretchen, thank you for the great read. I was unaware of the connection everyone shared with their trees. Michael and I had our own experience harvesting the 30 trees here at Ron Digiorgio’s place on High Rd just down from the Fire Dept Station at Creighton Ridge we have been leasing for 2 years. The trees are a Tuscan Blend from McAvoy’s and in the ground for around 25 years. The mill told us this year that our olives had a high oil content and the flavor is amazing. We put a shot of it in our morning smoothie!

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  3. Thanks, Gretchen, for the wonderful local olive chronicle! Delicious healthy olive oil plus community building – a prize-winning recipe!

    Like

  4. I love this story and your art and photos as always, Gretchen! Thanks so much for sharing your world, art and stories with us!

    Like

  5. I love this story and your art and photos as always, Gretchen! Thanks so much for sharing your world, art and stories with us! I hope life is good and wishing you happy holidays! diane

    “Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.” —Ruth Bader Ginsburg

    >

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  6. Loved the informative stories, photos and comments. What a wonderful experience to participate in. Reminds me of my growing up in Missouri and “bumping” the pecan trees creating the rain of grafted pecans onto the tarps spread below.

    Liked by 1 person

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