California Farmer Learns to Adapt to Constant Change

Challenges created by the pandemic and climate change prompted an award-winning producer to go with the flow.
Geoff Peters
Dec. 28, 2020
Daniel Dawson

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The 2020 olive har­vest has been like no other for pro­duc­ers around the world, with cli­mate change and the Covid-19 pan­demic cre­at­ing new chal­lenges for har­vest­ing olives and sell­ing olive oil.

Perhaps nowhere has the impact been more pro­found than in California. Farmers in the Golden State have had a par­tic­u­larly tough year.

It seemed that it was bet­ter, while the oil was rel­a­tively fresh, that it went to fam­i­lies that needed it.- Geoff Peters, owner, Showa Farm

Record-set­ting wild­fires raged through­out the state, wip­ing out every­thing in their paths. More recently, California has seen a surge in Covid-19 cases and is now report­ing the high­est daily num­ber of infec­tions per capita in the world’s worst-affected coun­try.

While the pan­demic has had a rel­a­tively small impact on the olive har­vest, demand for the state’s olive oil plum­meted, with the clo­sure of much of the restau­rant and hos­pi­tal­ity sec­tor.

The high-end mar­ket pretty much closed down as peo­ple went into shel­ter-in-place,” Geoff Peters, the owner of Showa Farm, told Olive Oil Times. That affected us.”

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The other thing that affected us was restau­rants,” Peters added. Last October, I had pre-sold 75 to 80 per­cent of my har­vest to some Michelin-star restau­rants in New York and we had agreed on every­thing. I was work­ing out the details of ship­ping when Covid-19 hit and all the orders were can­celed.”

Peters was soon fac­ing a glut of left­over olive oil from the pre­vi­ous year, with the 2020 har­vest about to begin. However, the semi-retired mar­ket­ing con­sul­tant decided there was a way to solve his prob­lem while help­ing out the local com­mu­nity in north­ern Sonoma County’s Alexander Valley.


We knew what was going on in the com­mu­nity because of Covid-19, and peo­ple were donat­ing to the food banks back in July, long before we even har­vested,” he said. We did not know how long the pan­demic was going to last, so when we har­vested, we held onto the oil think­ing that maybe it would end and we could move on with life.”

Once it became clear what was going on, what the time sequence was, and I was com­ing up on the har­vest [in October], it seemed that it was bet­ter, while the oil was rel­a­tively fresh, that it went to fam­i­lies that needed it,” he added.


Nighttime harvesting at Showa Farm

Overall, Peters donated 40 per­cent of his 2019 har­vest to local food banks, upon which California’s farm work­ers have increas­ingly come to rely.

The com­bi­na­tion of wild­fires, which wreaked havoc with the state’s lucra­tive wine indus­try, and plum­met­ing demand for a range of agri­cul­tural goods from the restau­rant and hos­pi­tal­ity sec­tors meant plenty of farm­work­ers could not find work.

For Peters, who has been grow­ing Arbequina trees on his farm for the past seven years, the grow­ing threat of wild­fires presents one of the biggest chal­lenges.

We’ve had five years of wild­fires. Each year they say this is the worst it has ever been, and then the next year is worse,” Peters said. In north­ern California when there are wild­fires or red-flag warn­ings about wild­fires, the elec­tri­cal sys­tem does what is called a pub­lic safety power shut­down.”


Grandchildren help out on the harvest at Showa Farm.

What hap­pens is a lot of the mills do not have gen­er­a­tors. So, as a result, you can’t har­vest because you can’t get your mill to process your fruit within five to six hours of being har­vested and cer­tainly not within 24 hours of being har­vested if the mill has no power,” he added.

While the fires have not directly impacted Peters’ har­vest or the qual­ity of his olive oils, he has found him­self increas­ingly at the whim of the wild­fires.

You have to lit­er­ally plan your har­vest around wild­fires and power shut­downs,” he said. Last year, I har­vested 60 per­cent of my fruit dur­ing a par­tic­u­lar week, and then had to wait weeks for the fires to be over and power to come back again at the mill before I could har­vest the last 40 per­cent.”

This year, with the Glass Fire just half-a-dozen miles away, he first made sure that his local olive mill would not be sub­ject to a pub­lic safety power shut­down.


Freshly harvested olives head to the mill between public safety power shutdowns.

If we went through and spent a whole day har­vest­ing and then brought five bins to the mill and the mill sud­denly loses power, I’ve just lost all of that fruit,” he said.

Due to the low mar­gins of olive oil pro­duc­tion and the rel­a­tively high lev­els of power con­sump­tion required for the equip­ment, indus­trial-scale gen­er­a­tors are not an option for many oper­a­tors.

The equip­ment uses a fair amount of elec­tric­ity, so you can’t just go out to your Ace hard­ware and get a gen­er­a­tor that’s going to power a mill,” Peters said. It’s an issue, and our fire sea­sons have got­ten pro­gres­sively worse, so it becomes more and more of an issue every year.”

As the old say­ing goes, farm­ing is a crap­shoot,” he added. You’re wor­ry­ing about the weather. You’re wor­ry­ing about insects. You’re wor­ry­ing about fun­gus. You’re wor­ried about wild­fires and now the virus. There are a lot of things that could go wrong.”


With work evaporating for farm laborers, local food banks are busier than ever in California.

And plenty has gone wrong for Peters over his seven-year farm­ing career, but he has learned from each mis­take and slowly built an award-win­ning brand.

I made every mis­take there was in the book at the begin­ning,” he said, with a wry smile and a bit of a chuckle. I’ll never for­get, before we even planted trees, we had 20 acres (eight hectares) of mead­ow­land, and I went out on a very hot day on my brand new trac­tor in shorts and a t‑shirt and mowed.”

I came down with poi­son oak from head to toe and the other farm­ers all said why did­n’t you wear a Tyvek suit?’,” Peters added. I said, I thought that was only for peo­ple spray­ing chem­i­cals and I’m organic, so I’m not going to do that.’ They responded no it’s so you don’t get cov­ered in poi­son oak’.”

That was the first – and most painful – of the many lessons that Peters would learn over the years.

Every year is a dif­fer­ent sea­son, dif­fer­ent weather, dif­fer­ent crop, dif­fer­ent things hap­pen. But you also have some things you can con­trol so you try to con­trol those things to improve the qual­ity.- Geoff Peters, owner, Showa Farm

I did­n’t grow up on a farm and had never farmed in my life,” he said. I went to learn at the UC Davis Olive Center. I had to learn about grow­ing olives and then learn about milling olives.”

Fortunately UC Davis took me in and I met a lot of inter­est­ing peo­ple,” Peters added. Farming is mostly about know­ing your other farm­ers and net­work­ing.”

Networking was one of the few skills – in terms of olive grow­ing and oil pro­duc­tion – that Peters had prior to plant­ing his first Arbequina trees. Originally, farm­ing had never been in his plans as he began to eye retire­ment after a long career work­ing in mar­ket­ing for non­prof­its.

When my wife retired from the fed­eral gov­ern­ment in Washington, D.C., she said that we are mov­ing to California and liv­ing near San Francisco, so I can be near the grand­chil­dren,” he recalled. I had no inten­tion of liv­ing in California, but it was announced that that was what the plan was.”

See Also:California Yield Will Be Lower than Predicted

I did not want to live in the city any­more, hav­ing gone through 90-minute com­mutes each way each day,” he added. I wanted to be some­where where I did­n’t have to com­mute any­where.”

With this com­pro­mise on the table, the pair found a prop­erty on bare land about two hours north of San Francisco and started to build.

We had to build a road into it. We had to build well water, sep­tic, build a house, put elec­tric­ity to it,” he said. And even­tu­ally after we had a roof over our head, she allowed me to plant olive trees.”

The idea for olive trees had long been sit­ting in the back of Peters’ mind. Prior to his semi-retire­ment, he used to teach a class about fundrais­ing at the University of Bologna over the sum­mers.

Since he was already there, Peters used this oblig­a­tion as an excuse to explore Tuscany, where he fell in love with the food, wine and extra vir­gin olive oil, and specif­i­cally mono­va­ri­etal Arbequina oils.

We taste tested olive oil all around the world,” Peters said. We con­stantly taste tested mono­va­ri­etals, but tested blends too. Basically, we were try­ing to deter­mine what type of tree we wanted.”

Once Peters decided on Arbequina, he started to pur­chase the trees at a quick pace, at one point buy­ing all of the avail­able ones from his local nurs­ery. Currently, he has 800 trees on his farm, all of which, with the excep­tion of some pol­li­na­tors, are Arbequina.

In 2018, Peters har­vested his olives for the first time, pro­duc­ing a mod­est amount of oil. The fol­low­ing year, he had his first com­mer­cial har­vest and on the advice of a con­sul­tant, started to enter com­pe­ti­tions.


Kids and children on the farm for the harvest.

He tasted my olive oil and said you need to enter this in some com­pe­ti­tions,” Peters said. He said you prob­a­bly won’t win any­thing, but at least you’ll get tast­ing notes back and learn about what you need to do dif­fer­ently.”

So Peters entered his mono­va­ri­etal Arbequina at the 2019 NYIOOC World Olive Oil Competition and, to his sur­prise, won a Gold Award. He fol­lowed that with a Silver at the 2020 edi­tion of the com­pe­ti­tion.

This year, Peters has pro­duced and bot­tled 560 liters of olive oil, a 10-per­cent bet­ter yield than the year before. Based on the feed­back he received from judges, he has made a few adjust­ments, includ­ing cut­ting off his irri­ga­tion a week ear­lier than the pre­vi­ous year in order to inten­sify the fla­vor of his oils.

In many ways, it’s like a trial and error process,” he said. You learn from what you did right, but you also learn from what you did wrong and you try new things.”

Every year is a dif­fer­ent sea­son, dif­fer­ent weather, dif­fer­ent crop, dif­fer­ent things hap­pen,” he added. But you also have some things you can con­trol so you try to con­trol those things to improve the qual­ity.”

In spite of all the chal­lenges thrown at Peters by 2020, he is look­ing for­ward to the 2021 NYIOOC and already plans to send in his oils.

When the new bot­tles come back, I am ship­ping some to New York and we are going to see whether we learned some­thing to make our oil bet­ter,” he said.

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