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.”

See Also: Producer Profiles

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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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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