Farming Olive Trees
by Linda Boston Franke

The demand for rural land is often a demand for "lifestyle," which many prospective land buyer place above the prospect of engaging in agricultural endeavors. However, as more urban dwellers move to rural locations and seek to own property with acreage, many also seek the agricultural possibilities that the land may offer. Small scale farming can offer the opportunity to experiment with pride of ownership specialty crops, organic growing techniques, and other novelties, while generating income and possibly producing some tax advantages.

Land owners in many parts of the west and southwest may want to consider the possibility of planting an olive grove. Olive trees are well suited to sub-tropical Mediterranean climates and can endure occasional light frost, and hot dry summers. They can be farmed on land where there is little or no irrigation in place.

The olive tree is among the oldest known cultivated tree in the world. It was native to Asia Minor and spread throughout the Mediterranean world before 3000 BC. Olive leaf fossils have been found in Pliocene deposits and in excavations that date to the Bronze Age. Genesis tells us that a dove returned to Noah’s ark with an olive branch, which indicated the end of the great flood. But the most romantic tales around the olive tree come from the Greeks. The ancient Greek gods were believed to be born under the branches of olive trees. Greek mythology tells that Zeus held a competition for the purpose of awarding the patronage of Attica to whomever brought him the most valuable gift. The Goddess Athena brought the gift of the olive tree. It was valued for its shade, for the heat that could be produced from its wood, and for the oil of its fruit. Athena won the competition and became the patron of Attica, and the olive tree was planted at the Acropolis. The olive tree that grows there today is said to have come from the roots of the original tree.

The olive branch is steeped in history and tradition, symbolizing victory and honor, peace and purification. Olive oil infused with spices and aromatics was used in Greek and Roman ceremonies for anointing, and winners of the Greek Olympic games were given olive wreaths as trophies. The Bible makes numerous references to olive trees and to anointing with oil of the olive. To this day, olive trees grow prolifically throughout the Holy Land.

Most of the world’s olive products come from Italy, France, Spain, Greece, Tunisia, Morocco, Turkey, Portugal, Mexico, South Africa, Australia, and California. There are thousands of varieties of olives. The main varieties produced in the U.S. are Mission (originally cultivated by the Franciscan missions), Manzanillo, Sevillano, and Ascolano.
As a fruit, olives offer a marvelous accent to both salads and main courses, and can stand alone as appetizers. Olive oil gives superb taste when used for cooking and in salad dressings. There is a wide variety in the quality of olive oil. "Extra Virgin Olive Oil" is a term used to describe oil with excellent flavor and odor, a maximum of oleic acid with maximum peroxide value. The term is regulated by the International Olive Oil Council. In some areas, the term implies that a panel of experts judged the taste, mouth feel, and aroma to be acceptable. "Extra virgin" does not necessarily imply that the oil is "organic" or that it is "cold pressed.” The term "cold pressed" means that the olives were milled into a paste under cold conditions and then mixed with the addition of heat via steam to less than 100 degrees. Heating beyond this point increases yield but degrades flavor.
Historically olive oil has had medicinal purposes. Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, recommended the juices of fresh olives as a cure for mental illness, and poultices of olives to cure ulcers. Today, health practitioners tout the health benefits of poly-unsaturated oils in the diet. New research shows that olive oil contains powerful antioxidants which combat disease.

Prior to planting an olive grove, the grower will want to determine soil types and conditions, rainfall patterns, and average temperature variations. These factors come into consideration in selecting the variety of olive to plant. A grower will need to plant a minimum of two acres to get a yield worth harvesting. Density can vary from 40 to 300 trees per acre depending on terrain, and pruning and harvesting practices. One must determine in advance of planting whether the harvest will be hand picked or machine picked. The yields from mature trees can vary widely as well; one can expect a yield range from 2 to 5 tons per acre.

The following resources may be helpful to one who is considering growing olive trees:
Pruning and Training Systems for Modern Olive Growing by Riccardo Gucci and Claudio Cantini
The 2000-2005 World Outlook for Olive Oil (Strategic Planning Series) by The Olive Oil Research Group
Olive Oil: Chemistry & Technology by Dimitrios Boskou (editor)

The 19th Century Impressionist artist Vincent van Gogh featured the olive tree in various paintings. He found the tree fascinating, and he enjoyed the challenge of trying to capture the silvery grey leaf colors.

All Listings