Global Gardens Founder Sees Olive Tree as Keystone of California Permaculture

Long-time producer and certified sommelier Theo Stephan looks to bring her love for olive oil and the environment full circle.

Theo Stephan (Tenley Fohl Photography)
Oct 31, 2018 9:30 AM EDT
By Daniel Dawson
Theo Stephan (Tenley Fohl Photography)

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Theo Stephan never stops learn­ing. The 58-year-old owner of Global Gardens has been pro­duc­ing extra vir­gin olive oil in and around the Santa Barbara area of California for two decades now.

In spite of all this expe­ri­ence, Stephan attended the Olive Oil Sommelier Certification Program in Campbell, CA, last September. Ahead of her twen­ti­eth har­vest, she was still hop­ing to glean more tech­ni­cal infor­ma­tion from the course as well as fur­ther her gen­eral knowl­edge base.

The LA Times called me the California olive oil guru,” Stephan told Olive Oil Times. I thought, oh I like that. I want to be the olive oil guru, so I really want to expand and have more knowl­edge behind me.”

Stephan, who has writ­ten two cook­books cen­tered on olive oil and the Meditteranean diet, jokes that she was the old­est attendee at the course but still learned a lot. Among her many inter­ests is the olive tree’s role in a sus­tain­able future for California.

What I really want to do is become an advo­cate for cli­mate change as it relates to agri­cul­ture, par­tic­u­larly in California,” she said. “[The course] pro­vided me with cred­i­bil­ity as an edu­ca­tor, which has become increas­ingly sig­nif­i­cant for me as I’ve got­ten older.”

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However, as a self-described fla­vor hawk, Stephan also came to the course look­ing out for new oil-food pair­ings, both for bak­ing and cook­ing.

I love cre­at­ing savory dishes and even bak­ing, so explor­ing and tast­ing the dif­fer­ent vari­etals was really fas­ci­nat­ing,” she said. I was [also] intro­duced to Frantoio and Coratina and imme­di­ately ordered some big trees.”

She plans to plant the trees on a cor­ner of her land that she had pre­vi­ously ear­marked for more Koroneiki trees.

The Koroneiki olive is just my baby,” Stephan, the daugh­ter of two Greek immi­grants, said. I was going to put in more Koroneiki trees, but I would love for our farm stand prop­erty to rep­re­sent other vari­etals and I have room to do it.”

In addi­tion to the Koroneiki, Stephan also planted Kalamata and Cerignola vari­etals, which she har­vests as table olives. She grows Mission and Manzanilla olives, as well, for her mono­va­ri­etal olive oils.

Along with her cul­tural her­itage and pride in where she comes from, Stephan’s ado­ra­tion of the Koroneiki vari­etal is also rooted in ecol­ogy. After a spate of unusual weather at the begin­ning of 2018, many olive grow­ers across the state reported mas­sive losses in yield. The California Olive Oil Council said that this year’s har­vest would be 25 per­cent lower than last year.

My Koroneiki [yield is] exactly the same [as last year] and that’s why I call them such happy trees. I’m not down on Koroneiki,” Stephan said. Everything else is down, here in Los Olivos maybe by 10 per­cent. My other olive groves are prob­a­bly down by 20 to 25 per­cent.”

Unlike other bou­tique pro­duc­ers in the state, Stephan is respon­si­ble for the har­vest of about 6,000 olive trees, so she is not wor­ried about run­ning out of olive oil. However, she has not begun to har­vest yet. She said she will not start until at least the sec­ond week of November as she seeks to increase the oil con­tent of her yield.

I’m stress­ing the trees out right now by not water­ing them at all, which I typ­i­cally do in August,” she said. I started a lit­tle later this year because the fruit was later and I was try­ing to increase the size. We’ve got the size. It’s all about oil con­tent now.”

I might even push it out fur­ther depend­ing on how much oil I feel is in the fruit,” she added. It’s been a very odd year, I haven’t seen any­thing like it in my 20 years.”

In spite of the unusual year, Stephan sees a sus­tain­able future in plant­ing more olive trees and other flora native to the Mediterranean in California. By 2020, she plans to enroll in a local uni­ver­sity and begin pur­su­ing her Master’s degree in engaged human­i­ties.

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I was cer­ti­fied in per­ma­cul­ture last year,” she said. I took an inter­na­tional per­ma­cul­ture course, so we will be doing what we call stack­ing and plant­ing every inch of this prop­erty in some­thing edi­ble.”

In the shade of her olive trees, Stephan will also plant capers, sage and laven­der. Her plan is to fill the groves with other, com­ple­men­tary, Mediterranean plants that are also resis­tant to drought. Along the way, she will start an intern­ship pro­gram for local stu­dents in order to teach them about per­ma­cul­ture as well.

We’ll be work­ing with stu­dents on the land as well as at the farm stands, so every­thing from mar­ket­ing stu­dents to culi­nary and agri­cul­tural stu­dents will be involved,” she said.

Sustainability is a major issue in her eyes and Stephan wants to get peo­ple of all dis­ci­plines involved in advo­cat­ing for it.

Theo Stephan

One of the things I really want to do is become an advo­cate for cli­mate change as it relates to agri­cul­ture, par­tic­u­larly in California,” she said. California is blessed with the per­fect cli­mate for these drought-tol­er­ant trees.”

As she con­tin­ues to branch out toward new dis­ci­plines and chal­lenges, Stephan remains rooted in her pas­sion for olive oil. Her first expe­ri­ence with really tast­ing olive oil (as opposed to merely eat­ing it) came when she was a lit­tle girl in Dayton, Ohio.

My mother was a great baker, but it was my aunt who was an incred­i­ble cook,” Stephan recalled. I asked her why her cook­ing was bet­ter than my mom’s one day, while I was watch­ing her in the kitchen.”

She took out a pack of Wonder Bread buns and then she pulled down a big tin can with Greek let­ters on it from which she poured some olive oil into a bowl. She then pulled out the Crisco oil and put some of that into another bowl,” Stephan added.

She said here taste this,’ so I tasted the olive oil and it was phe­nom­e­nal. I then tasted the Crisco oil with the bread and spit it out,” she con­cluded, My aunt said that’s why my cook­ing is bet­ter than your mother’s.’ ”

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Stephan has never for­got­ten that moment from 50 years ago. Her love for olive oil was forged then, perched at the kitchen counter with her aunt in that old Midwestern indus­trial hub.

It has since con­tin­ued to grow and now her love for tast­ing olive oil is begin­ning to come full cir­cle.

Next April, Stephan will be fly­ing to New York. She made the same flight last year when one of her oils was awarded a Silver at the 2018 New York International Olive Oil Competition (NYIOOC).

I don’t know if I will enter [this year],” she said. I do plan to go and par­tic­i­pate as an appren­tice there. We were invited to do that.”

Stephan has suc­cess­fully taken two things she loves — olive oil and learn­ing — and turned them into a career. Along the way, each pas­sion has helped grow the other one.

I’ve got a five-year plan that I’m three years into here,” she said. I started the busi­ness when I was 38 to pri­mar­ily edu­cate and enlighten peo­ple as to the aspects of real olive oil and what it can do for our bod­ies.”

I’m really happy with our olive oil pro­duc­tion,” she added. And I really love this lifestyle.”


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