Tragedy Inspires One Croatian Family to Grow Olives

After the death of their teenage son in 2003, the Deša family took up organic olive cultivation to work through their grief.
Jul. 7, 2021
Nedjeljko Jusup

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After a record year for Dalmatian pro­duc­ers at the 2021 NYIOOC World Olive Oil Competition, one farmer in the hin­ter­lands of the south­west­ern Croatian region has big dreams of future suc­cess at the con­test.

Miodrag Deša and his wife, Nadežda, began farm­ing in 2003 after los­ing their 17-year-old son, Antonio, in a car crash. To alle­vi­ate the pain and irrepara­ble loss, Deša sug­gested to his wife that they start cul­ti­vat­ing olives and rais­ing chick­ens.

There is always work to be done,” Deša told Olive Oil Times, who, along with his wife and the rest of the fam­ily, now take care of 5,075 olive trees and 350 lay­ing hens that roam freely through­out the 24-hectare estate.

See Also: Producer Profiles

The olive fruits are har­vested each autumn, while eggs are col­lected every day through­out the year. Along with the chick­ens, the Deša has a fam­ily of Maremmano-Abruzzese shep­herd dogs, which pro­tect the hens from being attacked by birds of prey, foxes and other preda­tors.

We strive to live in har­mony with nature,” Deša said.

The fam­ily lives in Zadar, a city of 85,000, which is more than 3,000 years old and is con­sid­ered to be older than Rome. However, their 65,000-hectare grove is located 10 kilo­me­ters from the city cen­ter in Ravni Kotari.

The area is known for its mild, Mediterranean cli­mate, which is ideal for veg­eta­bles and fruit grow­ing, espe­cially for figs, vines and, of course, olives.

At 5 a.m. each morn­ing, Deša and his wife wake up and head out to the olive groves. While the cli­mate is ideal for olive tree cul­ti­va­tion, the karst land­scape was not. To plant their trees, the fam­ily invested hours of work and plenty of money.

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First, the heav­ily over­grown ter­rain had to be cleared, both above and below the ground. Special machines then ground the removed plants into mulch that would later be used to fer­til­ize the olive trees.

After the land was cleared, holes in which to plant the olive trees were exca­vated and filled in with the mulch and loose soil. The fam­ily decided early on to plant exclu­sively endemic vari­eties, which are well-adapted to the region’s rocky ter­rain

Once Deša planted the trees, he went to the local agri­cul­ture min­istry to seek fund­ing and cap­i­tal invest­ment for the organic farm.

Raising such a large olive grove in organic farm­ing, which we decided on from the begin­ning, requires large funds,” Deša said.

It is cal­cu­lated that the cost of con­vert­ing karst into arable land is up to €1.50 per square meter. However, this price also depends on the struc­ture of each sec­tion of the soil.

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Deša started plant­ing on ame­lio­rated karst in November and fin­ished it in December 2011. The olive grove was then fenced, and even­tu­ally, the seedlings took to the soil, and every­thing else went its course.

However, over time, they real­ized that an organic olive grove with­out ani­mals is dif­fi­cult to main­tain, so they decided to begin rais­ing chick­ens.

Four years ago, we com­pleted the assem­bly of a new mobile chicken coop, pro­cured in Italy. So over time, we can increase the flock to a total of 720 hens,” Deša said.

It is gen­uinely a super-mod­ern mobile chicken coop worth 400,000 kuna (€55,000) and large enough for three peo­ple to enter and look around.

It is planned that the chicken coop will move around the olive grove every 15 days,” Nadežda said.

The nests are equipped with flags for inti­macy and with a sys­tem that allows the hens not to sleep in the nests,” she added.

After the hens have laid the eggs, they roll onto a cen­tral rail, and the hens can no longer see them.

From a con­trol con­sole, the Dešas pull the rail out of the chicken coop and trans­port the eggs to using a refrig­er­ated deliv­ery vehi­cle. The eggs are then packed and deliv­ered to cus­tomers locally and as far away as Zagreb, the Croatian cap­i­tal.

Now we have about 350 hens that lay 150 to 200 eggs a day, and there will be more in the future,” Deša said.

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The eggs fetch a price of 2 kuna (€0.27) per unit in retail and whole­sale. These days, Deša is look­ing for new lay­ing hens, which is not easy.

It is not a prob­lem to get [new hens on the black mar­ket], but we oper­ate legally,” Deša said. Nothing with­out a receipt.”

He and his wife recently bought 300 chick­ens of var­i­ous breeds in Zagorje-Međimurje, a wine-pro­duc­ing region on the country’s north­ern bor­der with Slovenia.

Once the chick­ens were intro­duced, Deša said they are free to come and go through­out the day. This free­dom com­bined with the 33 square meter coop means the chick­ens enjoy far more space than is pre­scribed by law for free-range poul­try.

The goal is for the hens to be around every olive tree every day,” Deša said.

The chick­ens quickly eat all the grass and weeds. Inside the chicken coop, the floor is hol­low, so the feces fall to the ground and are gath­ered together with pruned olive branches for com­post­ing.

Chicken manure is an excel­lent fer­til­izer. It is extremely rich in nitro­gen, phos­pho­rus, cal­cium and potas­sium. In addi­tion to the abun­dance of organic mat­ter needed by plants, it also con­tains many microele­ments.

All of this suits Deša’s trees, which are in good shape. This year, they are not yet in full bloom, hav­ing born fruit last sea­son, yield­ing more than 62 tons.

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The use of the chicken drop­pings and olive tree branches as fer­til­izer is one step Deša took to ensure that his organic groves received an eco-label. His nat­ural pheromone traps, which are placed at 10 loca­tions within the grove, are another step he has taken to pro­tect his fruits in the most envi­ron­men­tally friendly way pos­si­ble.

The traps are how we fol­low the flight of pests – the olive moth and the olive fly,” Deša said.

Deša also col­lab­o­rates with the local uni­ver­sity to mon­i­tor the num­ber of pests present in the groves. If more than 20 are recorded in one week, he imple­ments pro­tec­tive mea­sures. The uni­ver­sity also warns other olive grow­ers about the appear­ance of pests through its plat­forms.

We don’t spray blindly or on a cal­en­dar basis, but only when nec­es­sary,” he said.

When spray­ing is required, Deša uses a state-of-the-art atom­izer, which is equipped with ultra­sonic sen­sors and mov­able hydraulic valves. Thanks to pow­er­ful fans, it can spray eight meters in height and eight meters in each direc­tion.

A sen­sor turns on the noz­zles, and a com­puter con­trols the spray­ing, which increases the speed and effi­ciency with which all 5,075 of his trees can be sprayed. It used to take more than 20 days to do this; now, it takes about 20 hours.

When the har­vest comes around, Deša and his team head out into the olive grove with newly-acquired shak­ers.

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Skillful pick­ers can hand­pick up to 200 kilo­grams of olives each day,” Deša said.

The freshly picked olives are imme­di­ately processed in the nearby Jukić oil mill. This year, they plan to start har­vest­ing in mid-October and fin­ish with the help of friends and rel­a­tives is in a month.

In 10 years, once the olive trees have reached their opti­mal size, Deša plans to install self-pro­pelled shak­ers. This will increase the effi­ciency and speed with which the olives are har­vested.

Thus far, Deša has been sat­is­fied with the qual­ity of his Oblica olive oil. His olive oils have been awarded at local com­pe­ti­tions, but his goal is to win at the 2022 NYIOOC.

By the time his trees have reached their full matu­rity, Deša esti­mates that he will pro­duce around 20,000 liters of organic olive oil each year. Combined with meat and egg pro­duc­tion, along with olive leaf and olive oil-based cos­met­ics, he hopes to become prof­itable in the com­ing years.

Deša said that all the progress his fam­ily has made since 2003 sat­is­fies him. A lot of hard work and grief went into cre­at­ing and main­tain­ing the groves, but Deša believes it is some­thing pos­i­tive that came from his son’s untimely death.

We have some­thing to hope for,” the cou­ple con­cluded.


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