Currently there are so many words flying around that aim to describe the practices we have been following consistently on our lands for centuries, rather than just recently having been awoken to them after years of misguided and errant ways.
Words such as "permaculture farming", "biodynamic farming", "carbon neutral farming", or more specifically "soil conservation", "land restoration", "regenerative farming" or "organic farming" have been developed to describe in parts or in whole what is simply traditional farming.
Traditional being the opposite of modern mechanised, high-intensity farming practices that aim at maximum yield with inputs that hypercharge production using industrial, artificial pesticides and fertilisers, as well as hormones and the genetic modification of crops.
Let's cover in a bit more detail what those traditional practices are and what they are not.
TRADITIONAL SPACING vs. HIGH-INTENSITY SPACING
Our olive trees are spaced at least 5+ meters apart in all directions so they can get sun from all angles and so the breeze can reach through the tree branches of these self-pollinating trees that rely heavily on them to produce a healthy harvest. It helps olive trees to be planted on inclines as this offers them more access to sun and breezes. There is plenty of free ground around each tree that breeds an important, complex and diverse ecosystem of grasses and herbs. What you see in the photo above is what healthy olive groves look like.
In the following is an example of a modern high-intensity farmed olive plantation.
As you can see, olive trees are planted closely together and cropped to form hedge-type rows that are pruned and harvested with heavy motorised farm equipment. These overcrowded and asphyxiating olive hedges don't get enough sun, breed diseases due to the close spacing, resulting in low quality olives and low quality olive oil. These olive hedges absorb a lot more water, that needs to be brought from elsewhere or that depletes groundwater in climates that are by definition arid or semi-arid. The olive hedges are treated with high amounts of pesticides, the residues of which can be found in the resultant oil. Plants that are normally the nesting ground for birds are being cruelly cut back with machinery that does not regard the nesting bird populations and destroys them. The age-old olive tree is completely de-natured via those practices and therby no longer fits into its original natural habitat of the arid Mediterranean climate.
MECHANISED vs. MANUAL LABOUR
Our traditional olive groves are being tended to by higher cost manual labour rather than by heavy, modern farming equipment. We have cultivated loyal relationships with our workers over many decades. We make sure that they are compensated well and this often means paying a premium during critical times such as harvest time. In olive farming the available manual labor is limited and there is high competition for it, especially in recent years, since the Covid pandemic.
Using manual labor is more gentle to the olive grove than using farm equipment. We take great pains to not introduce exhaust emissions from vehicles into the grove and only use electric powered tools where necessary. Yields are higher and healthier, with nearly no damaged olives when using manual labour. The trees are healthier and more resilient when they are not crudely and indiscriminately cut back and injured by machines. No nesting birds and other animals are killed the way we tend to our trees.
While the use of mechanised farm equipment appears cheaper to the superficial observer, the disadvantages and long term costs of its use are many.
Mechanised farming results in soil compaction and a cruel loss of species and a loss of biodiversity (25% of all species in the world reside in our topsoil). Fossil fuels (diesel, gas and motor oil) -consuming farming equipment emits fumes from combustion that deposit themselves on the trees, the soil and the olives, eventually also landing as part of the oil in our bodies. Mechanised high-intensity farming is not in any way clean and introduces many unwanted factors.
NO ARTIFICIAL, CHEMICAL PESTICIDES AND FERTILISERS
We only use natural fertilisers of organic matter such as animal manure and plant compost in our traditional olive groves. This is more input-intensive than just dumping chemical fertilisers, but it produces infinitely healthier, higher quality olives and a grove with very high environmental integrity.
Because we do not unduly intervene in and disturb the ecosystem of our olive groves, the ecosystem is also more balanced as a whole, thereby not encouraging the overgrowth of pests and other infestations. This is called biocontrol of disease. Healthy ecosystems support healthy people.
Industrial pesticides usually do not only kill off the intended "pest", but have a lot of "collateral damage" coming with them in that they harm other parts of the ecosystem that are beneficial such as bees and butterflies. Everything becomes poorer that way and "less". These toxic chemicals are washed off the field by rain and end up in our waterways and potentially in our drinking water. In Europe a fifth of all groundwater (which supplies 65% of our drinking water) is now polluted by agrichemicals.
Instead of spraying with industrial pesticides we use traps that hang on the trees branches for insects that try to feed on the olives. Depending on weather conditions and pests present, we use an age-old method to coat the tree trunks with a form of water soluble mud to prevent infections, rather than resorting to unnatural, cancer-causing, toxic agrichemicals which would ultimately end up in the oil we use in our food.
It goes without saying that no other de-naturing inputs are used by us such as genetic modification or the use of hormones.
While artificial boosters and industrial methods in agriculture may superficially result in cheaper prices, the high, longer term costs to public health, the environment and the sustainability of food production are much higher and not taken into account in this calculation.
SOUND WATER MANAGEMENT
The olive tree is native to the Mediterranean climate, which in turn is characterised by high levels of sunshine and some periods of draught. Water is not an abundant resource in this environment. The olive tree however is perfectly adapted to this climate when it can grow in a natural way. Traditional farming practice is to help nature along by collecting rainwater into cisterns during the wetter months and using it sparingly, if and when necessary, during the time the olive trees fruit to help the olive fruit grow.
The good management with organic practices of our farm's soil makes it act as a sponge and protect from summer drought. It can absorb twice as much water as agricultural land treated with chemicals.
When olive trees are overcrowded they compete for the little water that is available and have to be artificially irrigated with water brought in from elsewhere, putting a burden on larger regions and depriving other crops and human activities of water, not to mention adding costs often borne by the wider society (via taxes), through government subsidies and other interventions.
SOIL MANAGEMENT WITH INTEGRITY
Top soil is the source of all life and we need it for 95% of our food. Degrading the land through human activity by eroding and poisoning its topsoil and the biome it contains, leaves us with un-productive desert-like conditions that cannot produce any food for us at all.
Every year a large amount of soil is lost to the currently living generation and the next one. It often takes decades for new topsoil to form and the conditions for this process become increasingly inexistent in many areas of the world.
In traditional farming, soil erosion and loss are limited through the building of terrasses on the fields on an incline. You can see an example of this in the below photo from our grove:
These structures are built over generations and every incoming generation ought to keep them in good condition and add to them. Stones found in the grove itself are used for the terrasses and the soil is carefully tended to, managed and preserved.
The healthy ground cover of grasses and herbs we maintain also protects our fields from drought or flooding. Healthy soil acts as a sponge.
Healthy farm soil sequesters carbon rather than release it. We are a carbon sinking operation. This means that rather than releasing carbon into the atmosphere through our activity we absorb carbon.
Many olive producers continue the heavy use single use bags and plastic crates for the olive harvest. Those all eventually end up as microplastics in our environment. While it is at times difficult to completely eliminate the use of all plastics, we do our utmost to reduce its use to the absolute minimum, never use single-use plastics, recycle responsibly, use multi-use biodegradable jute sacks to transport olives (at a 4-5x higher cost than plastic bags).
The sum of all of the above efforts and sound choices, gives you the immediate benefit of getting a delicious food product that also does wonders to your overall wellbeing. Both body and soul benefit from good choices. Everything in this world is connected and nothing works in a vacuum.
A healthy, ethically sound production is a sum of many parts working together, but it doesn't stop there. It is down to governments to promote choices that do not have only short-term benefits. It is down to businesses to make smart choices with integrity and it is also down to the end-consumer to understand and know what they buy, make choices that have integrity both for their own wellbeing and for the overall health of our planet.
We can conclude that our traditional farming methods have the highest environmental integrity and produce the highest quality crops of olives, which in turn produce the highest quality olive oil. In many ways these practices represent the "climate-smart" agriculture that supra-national organisations such as the World Bank are promoting. We are already there and always have been. Now it is down to you to chose to be part of the chain that represents a virtuous circle.
Chose to support the farmers who make a fine, healthy, conscientiously produced extra virgin olive oil of the highest quality like the multi-awarded Opus Oléa extra virgin olive oil is.