`Traditional Methods, Sicilian Cultivars Help This California Farmer Standout - Olive Oil Times

Traditional Methods, Sicilian Cultivars Help This California Farmer Standout

By Thomas Sechehaye
Feb. 7, 2024 14:49 UTC

Karen and Malcolm Bond live in the semi-arid cli­mate on the west­ern edge of California’s San Joaquin Valley.

Near the small rural north­ern California city of Winters, the hus­band and wife team behind Bondolio are count­ing on authen­tic Sicilian cul­ti­vars and tra­di­tional farm­ing meth­ods to set their award-win­ning extra vir­gin olive oil apart.

We ben­e­fited from the gen­er­ous teach­ings of Italian farm­ers and pro­duc­ers, and we designed the orchard fol­low­ing their old-world meth­ods.- Karen Bond, co-owner, Bondolio

Back in the 1990s, we trav­eled (and still do) to Italy, and we always brought back olive oil as this is part of my Italian her­itage,” Karen Bond told Olive Oil Times.

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During Christmas 1999, while stay­ing at a bed and break­fast, the owner took us to the farm to taste her new oil, just milled,” she added. And, wow. That was the moment, and we knew grow­ing olives was what we would do.”


Inspired by trips to Sicily, Bond went to great lengths to import four Sicilian cultivars. (Photo: Bondolio)

Bond found a prop­erty with ten acres (four hectares) of almonds that, by the mid-1990s, were not pro­duc­ing much. Planting olives and mak­ing oil became the next step.

After tast­ings of olive oils from across Italy, Bond said the cou­ple decided to plant Nocellara, Biancolilla and Cerasuola. These cul­ti­vars were fruity and grassy and pro­duced exactly the fla­vors we seek in our olive oils,” Bond said.

Since those cul­ti­vars were unavail­able in California, the Bonds applied for per­mits from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the California Department of Agriculture to import live plant mate­r­ial.

Sadly, and it brought us to tears, the first ship­ment of seedlings arrived at the air­port with dirt on the roots, and into the USDA fur­nace they went,” Bond said. This was when they learned it was against reg­u­la­tions to import any soil with plant mate­r­ial.

I don’t like to tell that story because a man isn’t sup­posed to cry openly,” Malcolm Bond told California Table, a Substack newslet­ter. Once the box of our lit­tle plants was incin­er­ated in front of me, I cried.”

The Bonds con­tin­ued search­ing for ways to source the plants. They found a group near Florence to prop­a­gate seedlings, plan the orga­ni­za­tion of the orchard, and intro­duce Pendolino to help self-pol­li­nate.

We found a new nurs­ery and the most help­ful peo­ple who not only prop­a­gated for us but were also instru­men­tal in plan­ning the orchard,” Karen Bond said. They are still dear friends to this day. Happily, the new seedlings arrived – 1,250, on Christmas Eve 2007, and the rest is a glo­ri­ous his­tory.”


Karen Bond oversees each year’s harvest while Malcom Bond manages milling. (Photo: Bondolio)

Reflecting on the 2023/24 crop year, Bond said there was an increase in quan­tity, with the extra vir­gin olive oil being much more pun­gent and bit­ter than in pre­vi­ous har­vests.

Each har­vest, we learn about our trees and the olives, and Malcolm adjusts the milling to the olives,” she said. While this was a heavy year with boun­ti­ful olives, the yield was smaller with more con­cen­trated fla­vors.”

Using farm­ing tech­niques learned from their trav­els and early years, the Bonds expanded their vision to imple­ment sim­i­lar prac­tices through­out.

We ben­e­fited greatly from the gen­er­ous teach­ings of many Italian farm­ers and pro­duc­ers, and we designed the orchard fol­low­ing their old-world meth­ods,” Bond said. In keep­ing with tra­di­tional meth­ods, the olives are hand­picked.

The Bondolio grove design is much like the tra­di­tional south­ern Italian lay­out; trees and rows are spaced with more than 20 feet (six meters) of sep­a­ra­tion. The cen­ters of the trees are bowled out to avoid olive fruit fly infes­ta­tions. This lay­out and unique prun­ing style give each tree full sun and air cir­cu­la­tion.


In 2015, to achieve more con­trol over the qual­ity and char­ac­ter­is­tics of our oil, we decided to build our small mill adja­cent to the grove and our home,” Bond said. We are farm­stead, olive oil grow­ers.”

The mill and milling prac­tices use the lat­est tech­nol­ogy and research. The Bonds take pride in care­fully milling the hand­picked olives on-site, aim­ing to keep the time between pick­ing and trans­form­ing the olives to within 90 min­utes.

The har­vest takes approx­i­mately five days, with about 60 peo­ple help­ing. Bond coor­di­nates and over­sees the process and deliv­ers the bins of just-picked olives to Malcolm Bond at the mill.


The Bonds offer a range of oleotourism events to promote their products and the local culture. (Photo: Bondiolio)

We are hands-on olive oil grow­ers, and we strive to mill the high­est qual­ity olive oil,” Karen Bond said. The grove, the mill, the indoor and out­door tast­ing rooms and our home are Bondolio. Surrounded by the ten-acre grove, we keep a watch­ful eye on every tree.”

This is a small-batch farm­stead olive oil with an annual pro­duc­tion of about 800 gal­lons (3,000 liters),” she added. We pro­duce an olio nuovo, which is by pre-order and sells out very quickly, and we pro­duce a small amount of man­darin orange oil, co-milled at the end of the sea­son with our Pendolino, the hard-work­ing pol­li­na­tor.”

Weather, water and the threat of fires will con­tinue to be sig­nif­i­cant issues. We and the California grow­ers and pro­duc­ers will adapt and work together to find and share solu­tions,” Bond said. Other con­cerns include the con­tin­ued increase in the cost of har­vest labor.”

Carefully fol­low­ing cen­turies-old Sicilian tra­di­tion has yielded a legacy of suc­cess for Bondolio at the NYIOOC World Olive Oil Competition, with the com­pany win­ning its fourth Gold Award at the 2023 edi­tion.

Bond said the com­pany first entered the NYIOOC in 2013. We entered our first year mostly to see how our Sicilian Estate Blend would do,” she added. We earned a Gold, and our online sales sky­rock­eted. Each year, we enter and ben­e­fit greatly from the recog­ni­tion the com­pe­ti­tion brings us.”


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