California olive growers Stuart Littell and Pamela Marvel

Stuart Littell and Pamela Marvel grow organic olives in California's Capay Valley that they produce into award-winning extra-virgin oil.

Grumpy Goats Farm recognized for extra-virgin olive oil

Grumpy Goats Farms will expand from eight to 16 acres of olives later this year Grower produces award-winning extra-virgin olive oil Olive harvest will stretch from October through about Thanksgiving

Nestled among the oak-covered hillsides and small farms of California’s scenic Capay Valley sits an unassuming olive farm whose product is recognized in prestigious competitions for its flavor.

The Capay Valley quietly edges up to foothills that separate the southern Sacramento Valley from the famed wine regions of California’s North Coast.

Within this tiny valley sits Grumpy Goats Farm, a high-density orchard of olives owned by Pamela Marvel and her partner in life and business, Stuart Littell.

Together they produce certified organic olive oil that has won accolades from competitions ranging from the local Yolo County Fair to the famed Los Angeles International and New York olive competitions.

Honors include 13 gold medals, a best-in-class and a best-in-show.

They currently farm about 1,400 trees planted in a high-density configuration on eight acres of land.

Marvel explains that the name “Grumpy Goats Farm” gets its name from her and Littell’s personalities.

“I went to my gal-pals as a bit of a focus group and asked them about the name, and they said that for us it sounded perfect,” said Marvel.

“So we tell people it’s named after the ‘grumpy old goats’ that run the place,” she joked.

Grumpy Goats Farm sells bottled oil online, in a handful of retail locations across the United States and at farmers markets.

Though Marvel grew up on a farm in Wisconsin, agriculture has not been a lifelong journey for either one of them. Marvel’s professional career ended with her retirement as an information technology project manager in the Silicon Valley about two years ago. Littell still works as a general contractor in the region.

“Having grown up on a farm in Wisconsin I wanted to return to the country when I didn’t need to be in the city anymore,” she said.

About seven years ago, business plan in hand, Marvel took a little more than two years off from work to start the farm. By this point she was determined to grow olives after considering several different orchard crops. Though other tree crops were gaining in popularity at the time, she wanted something to set the farm apart.

“We were not going be selling a commodity product, so we needed to do something different and have a niche,” she said.

“I think the idea from the very beginning was to be an artisan producer,” Littell said.

Learning curve

As olives became the focus, Marvel knew she needed to learn what she could about the tree with roots as far back as ancient Israel and Rome.

Choosing to grow olives was just the beginning as Marvel discovered that when pressed into oil olives, much like wine grapes, have distinct flavor qualities based on their different varieties. She also needed to learn which varieties would grow best in the soil type and climate of Capay Valley.

“There’s a bit of an art involved in this,” she said. “There’s much to learn as people don’t yet know the best olives to grow in this area.”

Because there are so many different varieties of olive trees – the World Catalogue of Olive Varieties features 139 varieties from 23 countries that account for about 85 percent of the world’s olive crop – Marvel knew her work was cut out for her. Nevertheless, she was up for the challenge.

Through it all, Marvel says Littell “has been 150 percent supportive of my idea.”

Learning all about olives and olive oil quickly became her passion. She bought books and convinced Littell to join her in classes taught by Paul Vossen, a farm advisor with the University of California Cooperative Extension who helped found the California Olive Oil Council in 1990.

Vossen is a recognized statewide and international expert in olive oil production, processing and sensory evaluation.

The pair has a library of books they’ve used to source information on the different varieties they would choose to grow. They currently grow several varieties, including Coratina, Picual, Pendalino, Itrana, Barnea and Nocellera.

Cultural practices

The high-density plantings at Grumpy Goats Farm aids in the hand-picking of olives. They do this to preserve the flavor they seek in their oils.

High-density olive plantings tend to be smaller trees, tightly trimmed into rows with closer tree spacings and narrower rows.

Grumpy Goats Farm plants its trees 13 feet apart; rows are spaced 18 feet apart for a density of 186 trees per acre.

Marvel says their tree count and acreage will double in the coming months as they intend to add more varieties to their operation. Trees will be purchased from Santa Cruz Olive Tree Nursery in Watsonville. Nursery owner Bruce Golino has also been helpful in answering questions for Marvel and Littell as they build their operation.

Olive trees can also be planted in what’s called “super-high density” configurations. These denser plantings are trimmed to allow mechanical harvesters – the same machines used to harvest grapes – to pick the olives.

There are three predominant dwarf varieties of olive trees growers tend to plant in these super-high density configurations: Arbequina, Arbosana and Koroneiki.

Grumpy Goats Farm is certified organic by the California Certified Organic Farms (CCOF). Their olive oil is certified extra virgin by the California Olive Oil Council (CCOC). Extra virgin is considered the highest quality olive oil.

Marvel says they tend to begin harvest in October. Peak ripeness for their varieties will stretch between then and December. Choosing a harvest date is a balancing act of several factors: optimum taste, maximum level of polyphenols (a health-promoting antioxidant found in extra virgin olive oil), labor availability and mill schedules.

The goal is to have all the olives picked by Thanksgiving, which is when the first frost tends to arrive in Capay Valley.

Frost is just one of several things that can hurt the ripening fruit and cause detrimental flavor issues in the oil.

Another issue Marvel is learning to contend with is the Olive fruit fly (OFF). Like other olive producers, Marvel uses traps to count fruit flies then sprays an organic insecticide to combat the pest.

Treatment for OFF tends to run all summer, though the hottest months of the year can be helpful in knocking back OFF populations when temperatures exceed 102 degrees.

Once harvest is complete the trees are trimmed during the middle of winter to optimize fruit production and hand-harvest the following season. In the spring they mow their cover crop several times and apply organic compost and gypsum to the soil. Drip irrigation is used.

Leaf samples are sent to a lab each July to determine the nutrient needs of the trees. Liquid, organic fertilizers can be added to address deficiencies based on those results.

Milling oil

Grumpy Goats Farm has its oil milled, bottled and stored at Olivio in Hopland, Calif. because of its good reputation and organic certification.

“They’ve done a wonderful job for us up there,” Littell said.

Grumpy Goats Farm produces three different oils: Picual and Coratina are single-varietal oils. Italian Blend is a field blend of mostly Pendolino olives plus those from all of the other trees that ripen early.

The Picual olive is of Spanish ancestry. It provides robust and complex-flavored oil with the sweet, fresh aroma of ripe fruit and tomatoes. Coratina is likewise robust with hints of wheatgrass and apple, with a peppery finish.

Marvel explains that olive oil tasting is similar to that of wine tasting, though judging of olive oil is done in small, blue glasses that mask the color of the oil.

“There is an official glass,” she said. “The color should not make any difference in the flavor of the oil so the judges do not want to see the color of the oil.”

The oil is then warmed a bit in the glass by cupping the glass in the hand. It is then sniffed before it is tasted, she said.

Unlike wine, which can improve when it ages, the peak flavor of olive oil is immediately after it is milled, becoming milder as it ages.

It can also become rancid after a couple years.

“Olive oil really needs to be consumed within a couple of years of being bottled,” she says.

It should be stored in a cool, dark place to limit its exposure to light and heat, which can harm the flavors.

Other things that can affect the taste of the oil include the ripeness of the olives. Picking earlier than peak ripeness tends to give more robust oil, she says. Picking at peak ripeness tends to offer a nuttier, buttery flavor to the oil.

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