Updated: Nov 2, 2022
Starting this fall we will be "taking back" about 230 trees from a cooperative that, in exchange for caring for them, has for the past 20 years harvested and made oil from their olives. Party to an agreement known in Italy as an accordo di comodato, this cooperative has been exchanging care and stewardship of a portion of Poggiosole's acreage for the value of olives produced by trees on that land.
As "gentlemen farmers" who had purchased Poggiosole at around age 70 after living in cities their entire lives, my mom and dad sensibly felt the above accordo, signed in 2002, made sense. Of a total 500 or so olive trees, just 85 (our inner grove plus a handful along our driveway and the Strada Romita) provided plenty of oil, most years, for their needs, with 30 or 40 litres left over for friends and guests. There was no appeal in caring for hundreds more trees, even though those trees were on their land. But, human nature being what it is, the cooperative with whom my dad Gianni signed the accordo hasn't been doing much for those trees, especially since his health started failing in 2014.
Shortly after Gianni died last October, I met with Stefano Rovida, the cooperative's manager, and, as we walked amongst rows of trees that hadn’t been pruned in years, I asked him if his men could do more. But over the past 10 months it's become clear that Stefano and his farmhands are maxed out with commitments to other properties. So, gradually, starting with around half the trees Stefano was entrusted with, I've decided to extend our "own-managed" grove to our southeastern property line, with plans to incorporate another 200 trees in 2024.
Why take on hundreds more trees, when, for twenty years, less than a hundred have been sufficient for our needs? A few reasons:
1) Neglected trees are more likely to harbor agricultural pests and diseases that can be passed to trees in our inner grove. Unpruned olive trees are also ungainly and produce relatively little fruit.
2) A well-maintained tree is beautiful, and beauty is important to me and integral to Poggiosole.
3) Caring for olive trees includes cutting and clearing shoots and grass that grow around them. Left alone, the grass easily gets waist-high, rendering the land impracticable and an eventual harvest arduous. Sure, you can cut and clear just a couple of times a year, but keeping things tidy year-round makes it easier to fertilize and check in on your trees as well as sight deer, pheasants and magpies or picnic and stargaze. Trees with problems can be spotted and treated earlier and the grove assumes a neater, more inviting vibe.
4) Meagre harvests like last year's are likely to recur given errant weather patterns and drought. If 85 trees are enough for guests, family and friends on a good year, when yields are low we'll need at least double that number to get a similar quantity of oil. Simply put: our oil is exceptionally good and we want more of it even when harvests are poor (this year we ran out in just seven months and resorted to buying oil from a nearby farm).
Adding trees has consequences of course. More equipment (and more fuel and electric power to run it), more fertilizer, more people needed to prune from February through March, and still more to harvest in October. The logistics can get gnarly, especially around harvest time, since one requirement of top-quality oil is pressing the olives within 24 hours of pulling them off the trees. It’s one thing to do that with 80 trees, quite another with 300 or 500 trees, especially since nearly everyone in the area is harvesting in the same two-week period. Some planning is required, along with multiple vehicles and lots of work.
Will all that added work and expense be worthwhile? Any seasoned grower in these parts will tell you that no one ever got rich making olive oil on small parcels of hilly Tuscan land. That’s one reason Mr Rovida has let the majority of Poggiosole's trees go more or less to seed. The effort and costs associated with a well-maintained olive grove need to be viewed in the broader context of caring for the land, of the animals that traverse, nest, and grow on it, and of making something exceptional by hand.