`Crisis Spurred Spartan Olive Oil to Forge a Brighter Future - Olive Oil Times

Crisis Spurred Spartan Olive Oil to Forge a Brighter Future

Mar. 11, 2022
Paolo DeAndreis

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In the shad­ows of the Greek Taygetus, a spec­tac­u­lar moun­tain range in the Peloponnese, the fam­ily behind Sparta Gourmet pro­duces their award-win­ning extra vir­gin olive oil.

A few kilo­me­ters south of the town of Sparti, in a coun­try­side dot­ted by olive trees, vine­yards, small churches and farms, Sparta Gourmet’s high-tech mill is at the heart of a renewed local effort to pro­duce high-qual­ity olive oil.

This all meant a new sus­tain­able busi­ness model aimed at prop­erly reward­ing local grow­ers, who were not used to receiv­ing quick guar­an­teed pay­ments for their fruits.- Ekaterina Valiotis, co-owner, Sparta Gourmet

This effort has already started to pay off, with the pro­duc­ers earn­ing a Silver Award at the 2021 NYIOOC World Olive Oil Competition for their medium-inten­sity Koroneiki mono­va­ri­etal.

Sparta Gourmet was founded as an inno­v­a­tive farm­ing com­pany a few years ago by a Greek fam­ily who had moved to New York in 1975.

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However, many rel­a­tives remained in Greece, so the fam­ily kept com­ing back to cel­e­brate their roots, col­lect­ing Kalamata olives and pro­duc­ing olive oil to bring back to their friends in the United States.

In the first years of the 2000s, my fam­ily would come back every sum­mer to have their kids learn the lan­guage and under­stand the her­itage,” Ekaterina Valiotis, the company’s co-owner, told Olive Oil Times. I remem­ber sum­mers spent among the olive trees and explor­ing the vine­yards when we were young. We always had a con­nec­tion with our moth­er­land.”

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Over time, the inter­est in the table olives and olive oil brought from Greece con­tin­ued to grow among the family’s American friends and acquain­tances.

That is when we began talk­ing with the local farm­ers, our neigh­bors in Greece, and started to export their prod­ucts as well, but not to sell,” Valiotis said. For us, buy­ing their food only meant bring­ing gifts back to the United States.”

However, this all changed after the 2008 finan­cial cri­sis, which dev­as­tated the Greek econ­omy.

Things were going very well for us in the United States, so my father had the idea to give a hand to our com­mu­nity of ori­gin,” Valiotis said. He built a mill through which the local farm­ers could pro­fes­sion­ally grow and press their olives and export their olive oil.”

Between 2015 and 2018, the Sparta Gourmet mill was built on a hectare of land in the heart of a val­ley where ubiq­ui­tous tra­di­tional orchards have been pro­duc­ing olive oil for gen­er­a­tions.

The goal for Valiotis and her fam­ily is to grow their trees on 400 hectares while gath­er­ing the best local pro­duce and sup­port­ing grow­ers to focus on qual­ity pro­duc­tion and shar­ing resources.

This all meant a new sus­tain­able busi­ness model aimed at prop­erly reward­ing local grow­ers, who were not used to receiv­ing quick guar­an­teed pay­ments for their fruits,” Valiotis said.

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We built a highly tech­no­log­i­cal Alfa Laval mill, with two lines of pro­duc­tion, capa­ble of han­dling six tons of olives per hour,” she added.

However, Valiotis hinted at the chal­lenge of find­ing highly spe­cial­ized work­ers in the area.

We brought engi­neers from Athens, as nobody here knew how to use these machines,” she said. Then we built the bot­tling facil­ity, the under­ground stor­age tanks for the Kalamata olives as well as the stain­less steel tanks for olive oil with nitro­gen seal and closed sys­tem.”

With the mill at its heart, a new approach to olive oil pro­duc­tion and mar­ket­ing blos­somed, and the Valiotis fam­ily moved back to Greece per­ma­nently in 2018.

We export 60 per­cent of our pro­duc­tion to the United States,” Valiotis said.

The most sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of the olives come from the Koroneiki vari­ety and a smaller quan­tity from Athinolia, which pro­duce medium to robust extra vir­gin olive oil.

Due to the exports, which grew dur­ing the Covid-19 pan­demic, and the increase in olive oil prices, new oppor­tu­ni­ties sur­faced for Sparta Gourmet, which also helped develop the local olive grow­ing com­mu­nity.

We brought in agron­o­mists, chemists and other spe­cial­ists to help local farm­ers learn how to take care of their groves bet­ter, best prune the trees, cor­rectly use fer­til­iz­ers or why it is their inter­est to get rid of pol­lu­tants and pes­ti­cides,” Valiotis said.

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For instance, many farm­ers are now giv­ing up the use of petro­leum-based tools for their groves,” she added. That is hap­pen­ing because they have learned how they can pol­lute and affect the trees, which also means that their fruits can­not be used for high-end prod­ucts.”

According to Valiotis, the grow­ing com­mu­nity trust around the oppor­tu­ni­ties of high-qual­ity farm­ing is also due to envi­ron­men­tally-friend choices and solu­tions led by the com­pany, such as installing an organic fil­ter­ing facil­ity to avoid waste­water from mill oper­a­tions pol­lut­ing the area.

The same strat­egy included the instal­la­tion of a pow­er­ful solar energy grid, which also pro­tects the mill from the energy price spike which is hit­ting the European mar­ket,” Valiotis said.

The mill also encour­ages farm­ers to re-use their olive pits for heat­ing and sup­ports them in main­tain­ing the grass cover in their groves to enrich the soil organ­i­cally.

We also add bee­hives,” which are par­tic­u­larly sen­si­tive to pes­ti­cide dam­age, Valiotis said. Pesticides even two kilo­me­ters away, with wind and rain, can destroy the whole val­ley.”

Farmers have to talk and share views about all of this, so they avoid pro­ce­dures such as burn­ing prun­ing remains,” she added. We got a huge wood chip­per, and when it is time, they can use it too. They can take their wood chips back and con­tribute to soil preser­va­tion.”

The fam­ily behind Sparta Gourmet hopes that the new approach, sus­tain­able and envi­ron­men­tally friendly, based on the local com­mu­nity, capa­ble of bring­ing new income to farm­ers and the uplift­ing local pro­duc­ers, might help younger gen­er­a­tions find a renewed inter­est in olive grow­ing.

The prob­lem here, as it is in other coun­tries such as Italy, is that most grow­ers are in their 60s, Valiotis said. What can we expect the future of olive grow­ing to be if younger farm­ers do not get involved, if we do not learn to share shrink­ing essen­tial resources such as water, if we do not act together to mit­i­gate and adjust to cli­mate change?”


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