Canada's First Olive Farm Weathers Difficult Winter

A year after their first successful harvest made headlines, Sheri and George Braun were left unable to fill any of their orders. Still, the couple said the project’s uncertainty is part of what makes it worth doing.

Sheri and George Braun (courtesy Boulevard Magazine)
Oct. 22, 2018
By Alison Sandstrom
Sheri and George Braun (courtesy Boulevard Magazine)

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Everyone we talked to either hung up the phone, or laughed and said you can’t do it there,’” said George Braun, recall­ing his pas­sion project’s rocky begin­ning.

He and his part­ner Sheri Braun were unde­terred, and five years after they imported the first seedlings from California, they accom­plished exactly the dream that few thought was pos­si­ble. In 2016, their grove on Salt Spring Island, British Columbia yielded the first Canadian olive oil — 32 liters of it, which sold out quickly.

You have to take a chance, you have to take a risk. It lit­er­ally has gone from a fun idea to our life.- Sheri Braun

But trou­ble was on the hori­zon. The win­ter fol­low­ing the land­mark November har­vest was the cold­est the island had seen in 30 years and forced heavy prun­ing of the trees. Then, as the fall 2017 har­vest neared, a dev­as­tat­ing early October frost froze the olives right to the branches.

It snowed, then it froze very hard for about four to five days,” George recalled. Then the weather picked up again. But the dam­age was done, and we just couldn’t get any fruit off that was worth know­ing.”

A year after their first suc­cess­ful har­vest made head­lines, they were left unable to fill any of their orders.

The Brauns were pre­pared for the fact that their north­ern loca­tion would mean early frost some years, but Sheri said they weren’t expect­ing it to be a fac­tor so early in the farm’s life.

Still, the cou­ple said the project’s uncer­tainty is part of what makes it worth doing.

I feel so many times in our world every­body analy­ses every project to death and if it doesn’t come in at around a 70- or 80 per­cent chance of suc­cess, then they’re not going to do it,” said George. In our analy­sis, it was prob­a­bly less than 40 per­cent.”

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So we were will­ing to try it any­way because that’s what hap­pens when you pio­neer a new indus­try,” Sheri added. You have to take a chance, you have to take a risk.”

It was a trip to Spain where Sheri and George fell in love with olive groves that lead them to search for a place in Canada they could start their own. They landed on Salt Spring Island.

Situated between Vancouver Island and the B.C. main­land, Salt Spring is known for its warm sum­mers and mild win­ters. Some have called the cli­mate Mediterranean,” although Sheri admit­ted that’s a bit of an exag­ger­a­tion.”

She said they had no idea when they started just how much work their olive farm would be.

This project has been way big­ger, wider, broader — more on every spoke than we ever envi­sioned. It lit­er­ally has gone from a fun idea to our life,” she said.

For the moment, the Brauns are focused on this year’s fast-approach­ing har­vest. With good weather in the fore­cast, they’re hop­ing they can hold off until the sec­ond or third week of November, giv­ing the olives more time to ripen. Every week counts, as the grow­ing sea­son on Salt Spring Island is sig­nif­i­cantly shorter than in areas where olives are tra­di­tion­ally grown, like Spain or Italy.

Long-term goals for the farm include increas­ing pro­duc­tion to meet the demand of their long list of inter­ested poten­tial cus­tomers.

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I think we’ve kind of estab­lished that we can grow trees in our part of the world. The olive tree itself now seems to be thriv­ing,” said George. Now the next suc­cess bench­mark would be if we could get an annual har­vest, at least nine out of every ten years would be nice. And of course get our vol­ume up, that would be kind of a third level.”

The cou­ple said it’s the encour­ag­ing emails they receive from around the world and the excite­ment of doing some­thing com­pletely new that make high-risk Canadian olive farm­ing worth it.

Even if we’re some­what suc­cess­ful with it, what a huge reward it would be just to have been able to do this in a cli­mate like ours,” said George.

To try some­thing brand new and take the chance is worth it,” Sheri said. It’s excit­ing. The growth itself and the prop­erty are beau­ti­ful. It’s an adven­ture, basi­cally.”

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