Photo: Belle Farms Olive Tree Orchard in Watsonville, CA
The Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau awarded this year’s Farmer of the Year award to two artisan olive oil producers from the Monterey Bay area. Marguerite Remde of Belle Farms and Chris Banthien of Valencia Creek Farms accepted the award from Farm Bureau Executive Director Jess Brown.
“The award is based not just on production but also recognizes the grower who is active in the community,” explained Brown. “Chris and Marguerite together have heightened public awareness of olive production in our area through their involvement at the farmers markets.”
Olive production in California has surged in the past decade as Golden State growers have responded to increasing worldwide demand for olive oil, driven part by clinical studies documenting the health benefits of extra virgin olive oil. Chris Banthien of Valencia Creek Farms, began planting olive trees on her Aptos farm when a friend suggested they’d do well in this area. “When I bought this property in 1990, I was mainly growing flowers. A friend suggested I grow olives instead, so after doing some research I agreed with him and began planting Tuscany and Coastal Tuscany varieties in 1997,” explained Chris.
Marguerite and Steve Remde, owner of Belle Farms in Watsonville, reached a similar conclusion on their own. “Steve is from Watsonville and grew up in agriculture,” recalled Marguerite. “”We wanted to plant grapes but Steve enjoyed working in the apple orchards around here. So we decided to plant olives, since grapes and olives go well together.”
Both farmers grow olive varieties from the coastal region of Tuscany, unlike the varieties grown in California’s central valley, where the temperatures are much hotter than the mild Central Coast. The varieties, soil, and climate produce a pungent oil that’s full of flavor. However, unlike grapes, olive oil does not age well. It is at its best when fresh.
Chris and Marguerite strive to get their harvests to the olive mill for pressing as quickly as possible in order to produce the healthiest and best tasting oil for their customers. The moment an olive is picked, the quality of the oil begins to degrade, as do the health benefits. Independent testing labs are utilized to determine the quality, with only the very best being worthy of the title “Extra Virgin Olive Oil” or EVOO.
“EVOO is produced without heat or any sort of chemical in the process,” said Chris. “Other names such as “light olive oil” or any other qualifier indicates it’s inferior quality.” Commercially packaged olive oil from Mediterranean countries promote their oil as being “extra virgin,” but the age of the oil is unclear. Since the olive harvest occurs in the late fall in the Northern Hemisphere, imported olive oils from the biggest olive producing countries such as Spain, Italy and Greece are likely to be over a year old if you’re considering an imported variety at your local grocery store. Unlike wine, harvest and press dates are not typically posted on labels of olive oil.
Both Marguerite and Chris are producers, and the olive oil they bottle and sell at the farmers markets are as freshest possible, and that means their oils have the best flavor and the most health benefits as well.
The distinctly regional flavor of both brands of oil is the result of the mild climate and the soil they were grown in. “The ‘terroir’ is a major factor in how our oils taste,” according to Marguerite. “The taste can also change from year to year, depending on Mother Nature.”
California recently enacted new laws that require more transparency for oils produced by commercial producers. Of the 700 California producers growing olives and selling the oil they produce, only a small number, less than ten, are affected by these new laws. Mediterranean importers have protested the laws as being “confusing” to consumers and have pushed back and mounted their own campaign to refute industry claims that California produced olive oil is of better quality and taste.
At the farmers markets here in the Monterey Bay, customers of Belle Farmers and Valencia Creek Farms don’t have to be concerned about quality or freshness. “We try to get the oil bottled and in front of our customers as fast as we can,” said Chris. Marguerite agreed. “Once you taste super fresh olive oil, you’ll become a believer. The olive oils Chris and I offer can turn any dish into an extra special dish.”