California Olive Farmers Embrace Regenerative Agriculture to Combat Climate Challenges

After the initial investment, California farmers say regenerative farming practices enhance soil health, fight pests and improve oil quality.

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By Thomas Sechehaye
Sep. 13, 2023 12:52 UTC
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Despite California’s unusu­ally wet 2023, farm­ers con­tinue to look for ways to mit­i­gate the effects of the state’s increas­ingly hot and dry cli­mate.

While sum­mer rain­fall has helped to refill reser­voirs, offi­cials warn that one rainy year has not reversed many of the long-term impacts of the drought.

We are only a few years into a long-term jour­ney. We believe over time that healthy soils lead to healthy trees, which leads to healthy fruit and even bet­ter olive oil.- Michael Fox, chief exec­u­tive, California Olive Ranch

As a result, olive farm­ers across the state con­tinue to hedge their bets. One way they are doing this is by embrac­ing regen­er­a­tive farm­ing prac­tices, which improve the soil health and help it retain more water.

The big idea behind regen­er­a­tive farm­ing is not only to pro­duce food sus­tain­ably but to reverse (or slow) cli­mate change,” Michael Fox, the chief exec­u­tive of California Olive Ranch (COR), told Olive Oil Times. This is done by nur­tur­ing healthy soils, increas­ing bio­di­ver­sity, and improv­ing over­all ecosys­tems.”

See Also:Better Soil Management Will Save Mediterranean Olive Groves

Fox said that COR, the largest olive oil pro­ducer in North America, con­tin­ues to place regen­er­a­tive agri­cul­ture at the heart of its cli­mate mit­i­ga­tion strate­gies in its groves across the state.

Regenerative farm­ing goes beyond organic prac­tices by focus­ing on more bird’s eye view’ needs such as regen­er­at­ing nat­ural resources, fos­ter­ing farm resiliency, and cre­at­ing a pos­i­tive impact on the envi­ron­ment,” he said.

Among the strate­gies the com­pany adopts are plant­ing cover crops in its groves, reduc­ing till­ing, com­post­ing pruned olive branches, pomace and waste­water, graz­ing live­stock in the groves, and reduc­ing syn­thetic fer­til­iz­ers.

Smaller pro­duc­ers in California have also rec­og­nized the need to change the cur­rent agri­cul­tural par­a­digm.

We are def­i­nitely in line with the grow­ing regen­er­a­tive farm­ing move­ment,” Thom Curry, the owner of Temecula Olive Oil Company, told Olive Oil Times. This was our mis­sion long before the ter­mi­nol­ogy became a thing.”

We needed to be beyond organic. No chem­i­cals, build­ing soil, intro­duc­ing ani­mals to the farm but not being part of the per­ma­cul­ture move­ment,” he added. Olive trees offer a won­der­ful plat­form to accom­plish this goal.”

Olive trees thrive on soils that are not suit­able for other crops. The trees require min­i­mal water and are mod­er­ate in their her­bi­cide and pes­ti­cide needs. Fox explained that olive trees are already a very sus­tain­able crop.


California Olive Ranch (OOT Archives)

Our research shows that our trees have a net car­bon seques­tra­tion of more than 4 kilo­grams of car­bon diox­ide equiv­a­lent per liter pro­duced,” he said.

Another way to say it is that we cap­ture more car­bon in our tree bio­mass and soil than we directly pro­duce to make our oil,” he added. We believe that through regen­er­a­tive prac­tices, we will con­tinue to reduce our impact on the envi­ron­ment over time.”

Along with imple­ment­ing regen­er­a­tive farm­ing strate­gies, Fox said COR is research­ing these prac­tices’ impact on the olive trees and the wider envi­ron­ment.

We are mak­ing invest­ments in research to quan­tify the impact of regen­er­a­tive prac­tices on high-den­sity olive trees so that we can share the results with other olive and spe­cialty crop grow­ers, hope­fully inspir­ing them to enact sim­i­lar prac­tices,” he said.

While cel­e­brat­ing the work already done, Fox acknowl­edged that regen­er­a­tive farm­ing is a long-term prac­tice that needs to be worked on con­tin­u­ously.


We are only a few years into a long-term jour­ney,” he said. We believe over time that healthy soils lead to healthy trees, which leads to healthy fruit and even bet­ter olive oil.”

Along with adopt­ing these regen­er­a­tive strate­gies on its 2,000 hectares of com­pany-man­aged groves in north­ern California, Fox said COR also shares its research with many of its 50 farm­ing part­ners who grow olives across the state.

Frank Olagaray, the owner of Blossom Vineyards, is among the COR part­ners embrac­ing regen­er­a­tive agri­cul­ture. His com­pany farms 280 hectares of wine grapes, 130 hectares of organic almonds,130 hectares of organic olives for olive oil and 88 hectares of organic wal­nuts.

I have learned some things from the organic, sus­tain­able and regen­er­a­tive farm­ing ideas,” he told Olive Oil Times. I was taught that weeds and insects were bad for pro­duc­tion and that they needed to be killed. Now, I have learned to work with weeds and ben­e­fi­cial insects.”

However, Olagaray added that regen­er­a­tive agri­cul­ture involves more than sim­ply plant­ing cover crops between rows of trees and vines. It seems to me that most farms that are con­sid­er­ing them­selves as regen­er­a­tive are only adding cover crop­ping to their farms,” he said.

We have been using cover crops in our vine­yards for the past 20 years and have not seen an increase in our soil health,” he added. I think that is because we were till­ing in the cover crop, and tillage destroys the soil.”

Instead, Olagaray said the soil became sig­nif­i­cantly health­ier in his organic fields after he reduced till­ing to an absolute min­i­mum and lib­er­ally started apply­ing com­post made from 25 per­cent food waste and 75 per­cent yard waste.”

See Also:How Intensive Agriculture and Olive Cultivation Impact Soil Health

We have stopped mow­ing the weeds,” he added. We are using mulch in the tree row to keep the weeds at a min­i­mum.”

Olagaray added that encour­ag­ing the growth of native plants has helped him fight pest infes­ta­tions by cre­at­ing nat­ural habi­tats for preda­tors.

We have planted hedgerows with native plants, and they seem to be help­ing,” he said. Olives have a pest called black scale that is hard to con­trol chem­i­cally. Since plant­ing the hedgerows, the black scale has been kept under con­trol from being par­a­sitized by ben­e­fi­cial insects.”

In our almonds, we are only spray­ing wet­table sul­fur to con­trol rust,” he added. We are doing zero spray­ing for insects. There also are not any pests in the wal­nuts. I don’t know if that is because the hedgerows are help­ing or that the trees are health­ier and keep­ing the pests away.”

Meanwhile, in its groves in south­ern California, Curry said his com­pany has been prac­tic­ing regen­er­a­tive agri­cul­tural prac­tices for the past 20 years, fol­low­ing the Japanese busi­ness phi­los­o­phy of Kaizen, which roughly trans­lates to good change.’

Organic, sus­tain­able, and regen­er­a­tive offer essen­tial ele­ments of a holis­tic approach and point to an over­ar­ch­ing phi­los­o­phy,” Curry said.

We work to improve our soil, which improves our trees,” he added. That, in turn, improves the qual­ity of our fruit. Higher qual­ity fruit com­bined with con­stantly improv­ing pro­cess­ing tech­niques improves the qual­ity of our prod­ucts both in fla­vor and health ben­e­fits.”

The pro­ducer behind Temecula Olive Oil Company always looks for ways to improve his farm­ing prac­tices. Chief among these is increas­ing the bio­di­ver­sity among the olive trees.

We use cover crops as well as com­posted olive paste to improve soil health,” he said. This is sup­ple­mented by our sheep and chick­ens roam­ing the olive groves.”

Increasing the bio­di­ver­sity on the ranch with a med­ley of plants to sat­isfy pol­li­na­tors and ben­e­fi­cials,” he added. This bio­di­ver­sity also comes in handy to use on the table for our farm-to-farm table events.”

While many stud­ies have shown that graz­ing with ani­mals is great for soil health, Olagaray warned that live­stock in the olive groves need to be mon­i­tored care­fully.

We tried graz­ing with sheep in the olives one year and stopped,” he said. The sheep were eat­ing olives more than expected. We are con­tin­u­ing to graze in our almond and wal­nut orchards.”

A com­mon mis­con­cep­tion farm­ers have about regen­er­a­tive prac­tices is the con­cern that inte­grat­ing cli­mate-con­scious prac­tices into their oper­a­tion will be more costly than stick­ing with con­ven­tional approaches.

Most farm­ers do not like change,” Olagaray said. So they will con­tinue with their chem­i­cal farm­ing. The think­ing is that regen­er­a­tive farm­ing is more expen­sive. I will say that it will cost more in the begin­ning, and as the soil gets health­ier, the costs will go down.”

According to Fox, adopt­ing regen­er­a­tive agri­cul­ture is like any other long-term busi­ness invest­ment: an upfront cost is paid back over time.

We believe that over time, increas­ing bio­di­ver­sity and other regen­er­a­tive prac­tices will have a pos­i­tive impact on low­er­ing our input costs in the long term as well,” Fox said.

The truth here is that though incor­po­rat­ing regen­er­a­tive prac­tices might require ini­tial invest­ments in the begin­ning, the invest­ment in the longer-term future of your farm or ranch can not only pro­vide cost sav­ings but increase over­all farm resilience and longevity,” he con­cluded.

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