Knock, Knock? Who’s There? Olive….Olives love the North State, an Interview with Brendon Flynn of Pacific Sun Olive Oil

Photo: Old olive trees in a North State home garden.

Olives – to see growing, to eat the fruit and to savor the flavorful and aromatic oil – are among life’s treats in Northern California. County Fairs are also among life’s treats in Northern California and we are deep into both olive harvesting and county fair season. By way of celebrating our region’s agricultural wealth and heritage, Slow Food Shasta Cascade is co-hosting a Tehama County – Tehama Trail Marketplace at the Tehama District Fair in Red Bluff September 23 – 26th, 2010. The marketplace will include lots of olive tastings – from fruit to oils – which are distinct to our region. Many other agricultural vendors will be there to visit and visit with as well.

In preparation for the festivities, this week I interviewed Brendon Flynn, General Manager of Pacific Farms & Orchards in Gerber, California, makers of Pacific Sun Olive Oil products. Pacific Sun will be among the many olive producers with olive wares to taste and enjoy at the upcoming fair. Photo: Brendon Flynn beside one of two mills at Pacific Farms & Orchards headquarters in Gerber.

Brendon’s family, of strong Irish and German lineage, has been farming in the North State for more than seventy years; he marks the third generation doing so. His grandfather moved the family to the area from Los Angeles in the 1940s and began farming on property now occupied by the Abbey of New Clairvaux in Vina – the property having been a gift to the monastic order by the Flynn family in the 1950s, at which time the Flynn’s moved family and farming headquarters to Gerber. His father, Vince, and mother, Jane, ran the primarily field and row crop farming endeavor until Vince’s death in 1986, when Brendon was a freshman in high school. Jane Flynn has owned and overseen Pacific Farms & Orchards, Inc. ever since. Photo: Green olives.

Brendon went on to attend Cal Poly, and after receiving his degree with a major in Ag Business and a minor in Water Science, he served as Pest Control Advisor in the Salinas Valley for four years. In 1998, Brendon brought his wife and children back to the North State. Of six children, Brendon is the only one of his brothers and sisters who ultimately followed a career in farming and upon his return to the region, he began working his way up in the family business, ultimately becoming the General Manager that he is today. And it was with the return of Brendon Flynn to the business, that Pacific Farms & Orchards, Inc. began to branch out from walnuts, almonds and prunes to include olives. Photo: A selection of regional olive oil products.

The offices for Pacific Farms & Orchards, Inc. sits back on a long straight rural road between Tehama and Gerber. To get there you cross irrigation ditches and travel beside great lengths of orchards. As you get close to your destination, you travel beneath the swaying blue-green dancing branches of a long line of gnarled old olive trees.Photo: The sweep of Mission olive trees as you drive into Pacific Farms & Orchards.

“Those trees are what got me started,” Brendon tells me as we walk around Pacific Farms. “They were part of the old Curtis Ranch homestead and are likely more than 100 years old. The harvest from these trees, which we started not long after I came back, was the genesis of Pacific Sun Olive Oil products.” The olive oil branch of the Flynn family tree was the inspiration of Brendon Flynn. And it answered one of the family business goals of finding a way to bring some of their produce direct to their regional market. Photo: Ripening olives.

“Olive oil is like wine,” Flynn tells me. “Olives, like grapes, like all produce, take on different tastes and flavors based on the sun that shines on them, the rain that falls on them and the soil in which the trees are grown. Our olive oil – as that produced by other regional growers – tastes of Tehama county.” In the wine and olive world this idea of a particular taste imbued in a produce from a particular geographic location is summed up in the word terroir. And tasting some of our regional olives and olive oils, I think you will agree that our region tastes pretty good.

Moving on from the row of historic trees lining the drive on the way to work each day, Brendon and collaborators had the idea that if they had old olive trees not being harvested, other farms and gardens did too and they developed a network of trees to harvest each year – carefully documenting and tracking each batch of oils harvested so that they could trace different flavors to different olive tree groves. After a good bit of research and legwork, Pacific Suns Gourmet (a subsidiary of Pacific Farms & Orchards, Inc.) produced their first oil for market in 2001. “It’s a careful, thoughtful process that represents us and our place,” Brendon tells me – both thoughtful and proud of this fact. “To be able to eat a local food, and taste our locale – it is really a great launching point for the idea of eating locally. A tangible way to talk about the what, when and why food tastes the way it does. Or the way it should.” Photo: A variety of brined olives.

Since 2001 and the first Pacific Sun Olive Oil, the label has been awarded many blue ribbons in olive oil tastings and competitions around the country and state. Pacific Farms & Orchards now has a fairly comprehensive facility with two european olive oil mills. “While the term ‘press’ is still used, olives are actually ‘milled’ now for their oil, in a complex multi-step process of pulverizing the olives and then allowing the oil to separate from the solids of the fruit,” Brendon explains to me. “First cold pressed” refers to the temperature manually set in the bins where the oil first begins to separate from the soilds. While the oil separates more quickly at higher temperatures, these higher temperatures also damage the flavenoids, antioxidants, and polyphenols that are naturally present in olive oil and provide the great health benefits of it.” While Pacific Farms has several so-called ‘crush’ days, throughout the season of harvesting olives for their oil. The first day at the mill is a public celebration called Love at First Crush to be held at the mill yard on November 6th. For more information, please visit the Pacific Farms website. November 6th is also the first of several public mill days, when home gardeners can bring their olives to the mill for processing into oil. While your personal olives will be mixed with other small batch harvests, it is still rewarding to think your olives are in the olive oil you take home to be aged! At Pacific Farms, the solids leftover from the processing of the olive oil is then re-spread onto the farm orchards as compost. Photo: Brendon Flynn describing the centrifugal action of one of the final stages of separating olive oil from the fruit solids.

In general, you harvest olives for oil once the olives begin to ripen and turn color – from green to a sort of straw color to a purple or black, which in the North State runs anytime from late October to mid-January. For home curing, you generally harvest your olives while still green, but on the edge of ripening – “just as they turn that duller color,” Brendon tells me, from August to October.

According to Chris Kerston of Chaffin Family Farms in Oroville, “olives have been around for millennia as a staple food source in Mediterranean climates around the globe. Some trees in the Middle East are literally thousands of years old. While most commercial cured olives now rely on lye for curing, there are ways to cure without lye; they’ve just become somewhat forgotten in our modern fast food society. On September 18th, Chaffin Family Farms is hosting a free Olive Curing Workshop for home growers where olive experts will demonstrate multiple old world natural curing methods that don’t use lye, following a tour of the more than 100 year old Mission olive trees at Chaffin Family Farms.

Olive trees were first brought to California by the European missionaries for which Mission Olives are named. The trees were planted at the missions across the up and down the state for both the fruit and the oil they would supply. Olives soon became an important industry in California where the mild Mediterranean climate and soils suit them. Olea is a genus of some 20 species of evergreen trees and shrubs. Olea europaea is the species that produces the fruits traditional used for eating. Olives are best grown in areas of hot dry summers and prefer fairly lean soil and can survive with little water once established. While they are reliably hardy in USDA zones 8 -10, olive trees like a little protection from too much frost – especially anything under around 15 degrees. The best varieties for home gardens according to Brendon Flynn are ‘Ascolana,’ ‘Manzanillo,’ ‘Sevillano,’ and ‘Mission.’ “Olive trees can get very big,” warns Flynn, “so to keep your tree manageable, prune at least twice a year. Prune out suckers along or around the trunk, thin the interior of the tree and prune back the canopy during hot dry weather to avoid disease.”

Olive trees are spread by birds who eat the fruit and then spread the seeds around. If you are not interested in harvesting your fruit, but would like the beauty of an olive tree, try one of the non-fruiting and low pollen varieties such as ‘Swan Hill’.

More Olive Fun:

Photo by Tony Dunn.


September 18th, 2010
FREE and open to the public

1pm Tour of Chaffin Orchards 100 year old Mission Olive Groves
Hosted by farm owner Kurt Albrecht and olive expert Don Landis at 606 Coal Canyon Rd, Oroville, Ca 95965 www.ChaffinFamilyOrchards.com

6pm Natural Olive Curing Class – Everyone can head over to the Grange building in Chico (2775 Old Nord Ave, Chico, California 95973) where Don Landis will be demonstrating old world olive curing techniques including dry salt cure, water cured, and the Greek style brine cure. All cured without using lye. Samples of the cured olives and tapenade will be available at the end of the demonstration.

Order Raw organically farmed olives to cure yourself and to be picked up at the event. They’re just $1/lb. Just let us know how many pounds you’d like when you RSVP.

RSVP – Email chris_kerston@chaffinfamilyorchards.com to RSVP. Let us know if you plan to attend the farm tour and/or the class as well as how many people are in your party. This will help us plan and have enough samples for everyone.

Chaffin Family Orchards
606 Coal Canyon Rd
Oroville, Ca 95965
530-533-1676 Ranch Office
530-370-6432 Cell

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In a North State Garden is a weekly Northstate Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum – Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell – all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In A North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday mornings at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time. Podcasts of past shows are available here.

Jennifer Jewell

In a North State Garden is a bi-weekly North State Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum - Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell - all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday morning at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time, two times a month.

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