There’s a Writer Loose in the Olive Grove!
A tale of two urban creatives gone wild in food and farming
By Kristina Sepetys | Photos by Cheryl Angelina Koehler
Meet two young olive farmers ready to start their first harvest.
Kathryn Tomajan and Robin Sloan have no real farming experience, but here they are in October at their leased grove in Sunol, their olive trees heavy with fruit.
Oklahoma native Tomajan has the sort of pluck and infectious enthusiasm that make you think she’ll be successful at whatever she takes on. She runs Eat Retreat (an annual gathering for national food leaders), handles marketing for the Local Butcher Shop in Berkeley, and holds several positions in the olive oil industry. She has worked on the milling end of olive oil production, winning multiple international awards for her handiwork crafted for the Enzo Olive Oil Company in Clovis, California. But tending a grove? That’s a totally new experience.
Tomajan’s partner Robin Sloan is the best-selling author of two hit novels, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore and his recently released Sourdough. Sloan grew up outside Detroit and majored in economics at Michigan State University. He loved tinkering with computers and building webpages, eventually landing at Twitter in San Francisco, where he formed a lunchtime writing group that led to his first draft for Mr. Penumbra.
Olive farming may seem like an odd pursuit for a novelist, but Sloan tosses it off: “If you’re writing fiction, it’s easy to justify a lot of weird hobbies.”
The opportunity to step into agriculture arose in August of 2016 when Tomajan was helping D’Aun and Roy Goble produce olive oil from fruit harvested out of their grove in the unincorporated region in southeastern Alameda County known as Sunol. They told her they were looking to retire and wanted to lease the grove to someone who could farm it. Might Tomajan, with her background in olive oil and master’s degree in food culture from the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy, be interested?
Tomajan loved the idea of managing a production olive grove so close to her Berkeley home. Plus, a farming lease, rather than a property purchase, meant this was an opportunity she could afford to try. Sunol is hot, sunny country, so water bills are significant. Each of the 327 trees is drip-irrigated for three hours, two days a week, so a lease with water costs covered is especially valuable.
The tidy grove is set behind a yellow farmhouse in a picturesque area of Sunol. Surrounded by scrubby, golden hills with hawks circling and monarch butterflies floating among the trees, the three-acre grove is part of a larger agricultural property. In addition to barns and other structures, there’s a full-scale Old West village tucked behind the farmhouse, which the owners built to delight their children and grandchild.
If the past is any indication, both Sloan and Tomajan are industrious and willing to learn and work hard to remedy their lack of formal training. The two do all the maintenance and harvesting on the grove, sometimes helped out by friends or other groups keen to see olive farming and harvesting up close.
“One of us is out here two to three days a week,” says Sloan.
The trees all look somewhat similar, but in fact, there are six different cultivars planted here—frantoio, leccino, maurino, moraiolo, pendolino, and taggiasca. The varieties will be pressed and bottled separately, and some will be blended to show off the best flavors. The day I visited the grove, the trees and their soft green leaves were covered in a white powder.
“Kaolin clay,” Tomajan explains. “It’s 100% organic. We mix it with water and apply two coats with a sprayer system to protect against the olive fly.” Without that protection, the fly will lay eggs in the fruit. The clay makes an abrasive surface on the leaves and fruit that discourages flies from landing.
The pair planned to harvest the last weekend of October, with an expected yield of 200 gallons of oil. All of that will be sold off quickly by subscription through their company Fat Gold. Based on the load of plump olives filling out the trees, one could imagine harvesting would be a daunting task. But according to Tomajan, 40 people can harvest the whole plot in one day. “We’ll invite friends and make it a party!” she says.
They use motorized rakes that shake the olives free, as well as old-fashioned belly-slung buckets and finger picking, and work in eight-to-ten person teams. The fruit gets tested at Agbiolab near Chico for disease and damage, which determines the oil’s grade. After harvest, they’ll likely have the olives pressed by Jeff Martin in San Martin, near Gilroy. Martin and his wife Pam grow olives and make oil under the Frantoio Grove brand.
“Jeff’s mill is on the smaller side,” says Tomajan. “It’s perfect for the small olive lots we’ll be harvesting. He doesn’t normally do custom crushing for other growers, but we’re going to experiment together with some new production techniques, mainly filtering the olive oil after pressing. He’s one of the few millers who has invested in a filtering system, and I’m very keen to filter my oil.” Filtering removes sediment and makes for a clearer and often crisper tasting oil.
The olives and their oil won’t be the only fruits of their labors. “The setting and the work fuels my imagination, which is important for a writer,” Sloan says. “I already see the storytelling potential.” ♦
Robin Sloan says it was a copy of San Francisco baker Chad Robertson’s Tartine Bread that got him thinking about sourdough starters, the subject of his latest novel. Sourdough is the fictional story of Lois Clary, a software engineer at a thriving San Francisco tech company who inherits a sourdough starter and finds her way into an underground secret food society located at the decommissioned Alameda Naval Air Station. Named an Amazon Best Book of the Month for September 2017, Sloan’s delightful, compulsively readable book is similar to Mr. Penumbra in combining an old-fashioned pursuit—in this case, bread making—with the world of high-tech.
Edible East Bay book editor Kristina Sepetys is a writer and consultant living in Berkeley. Her work focuses on the intersection of food, farming, energy, land, water, and sustainable resource use. She can be reached at kmsepety(at)yahoo.com.