Last time, I gave you a whistle-stop tour of our own restoration/rebuild here in Abruzzo.
What I didn’t do though was make too much mention of the land that came along with the buildings.
We have a bit under 4,500sqm. Nearly half-a-hectare. Or – more easily understood for Brits and Americans – an acre.
And hard to believe now, but I hummed, hawed and deliberated for quite a while before signing on the dotted line whether this’d actually be enough.
I had plans, you see…
Give Me Land, Lots of Land, Under Starry Skies Above…
Aside from the pool and gardens to go with it, I had self-sufficiency dreams of a vast veggie patch and orchards. Maybe a few chickens. And sheep. Sheep ? Yes, Sheep. Really ? OK, perhaps a goat instead.
Or, as our plot is beautifully situated on a slope facing exactly due-south, maybe a small vineyard ? Or maybe a big vineyard. Our own wine !
We definitely have eight olive trees. Maybe a couple more. It’s a bit like one of those ancient stone circles that always gives you a different total each time you add them up. But for a modest additional outlay, I could buy adjoining land with hundreds more ! Wine and olives ! And chickens/sheep/goat !
My head and heart said, Yes ! Yes !! Yes !!! My wallet said,
Smart guy, Mr Wallet. Not buying extra land and the olives trees that went with them was the best decision I’ve ever had forced on me.
Why ? Well…in stark contrast to what my olive-owning neighbour would’ve had me believe, olives don’t practically grow themselves.
Here’s the annual programme:
In January and February, you prune. The idea is to cut out as much vertical growth as you can and encourage horizontal – or even downward – growth, as this will maximise your yield. Sheep and goats like to eat the softer prunings btw. Just thought I’d mention…
And if it snows and blows, with olive wood being surprisingly brittle, you’re 100% certain to lose a few branches. And yes, they’ll be the horizontal ones you’ve been so carefully pruning.
I speak from bitter experience here.
March and April will see you finish the pruning. The olive grove will then need scarifying to break the soil surface up a little after winter. If you’re going to fertilise – now’s the time to do it.
In April and May, you’ll cut back the grass and weeds so they don’t compete with your trees for water and nutrients.
In June and July, if you’re going to spray against the Olive Fly that wiped out pretty well the entire harvest round here in 2014 – including ours: we didn’t get a single drop – do it now.
August through November are the months in which yes – olives pretty much do grow themselves. Do a bit of light maintenance work keeping the trunks clean. And towards the end of summer, cut the grass again.
November’s when you start thinking about harvesting. Here’s the trade-off: harvest when the olives are still green and you’ll get a heavy crop, but because they’re not at their ripest, the yield might be low.
Ideally, you’ll wait until the olives have turned black – at which point they’ll almost be dripping with oil. But the downside is, that as they ripen, they fall off the trees, or can be blown off by autumn gales. If there’s early snow, it could wipe out your entire crop. In practice, you’ll wait until some magical halfway moment when ripeness and size of crop seem at their optimum.
The daredevils leave it until practically Christmas.The yields can be spectacular and the oil surpassingly good. Or it can be a disaster…
The harvest ? Rather than have it explained – watch a video of our own 2010 harvest. It’s the same show every year…
Then do this all over again the following year. And no, you absolutely cannot do it by hand. You need a tractor, with all the indispensible bolt-on bits without which running an olive grove containing more than…say…one tree would be an absolute impossibility.
And masses of nets like the ones you saw in the video.
Or seek out a tractor-owning mate like my best buddy Rocco, who’ll help. But because time is money and tractors seem to do about 10 meters to the gallon, he’ll need paying; as will the olive press for turning your crop into liquid gold.
And as you gaze with satisfaction at the ranks of 5-litre cans stretching out in front of you, you might start wondering what you’re actually going to do with it all.
One thing’s for sure – you’re not going to sell it, because all your neighbours – like me – will have their own. And even if they don’t they’ll get their oil – as they’ve always done – from a brother; or cousin; or uncle; or the bloke who lives down the road.
Which won’t be you. Because you’re not Italian. And it’s a known and indisputable fact that unless olives are owned, grown and pressed by Italians, the oil will taste all wrong.
Some UK friends of ours have 2000-odd trees and every autumn, they – plus every friend/relative/casual acquaintance they can persuade/bribe/bully into helping – turn up for the harvest. And when it’s done, every available car is stuffed full of cans and driven back to London to be sold in posh restaurants.
In a good year, our friends might *just* break even. But as anyone with any olives trees will tell you, unless you’re a commercial grower, it’s not about the money. It’s about the satisfaction of producing the best oil you’ll have ever tasted from fruit – your fruit – you’ll have grown; worried about; harvested; and pressed.
Most years, we’ll get around 15-20 litres from our trees, which is more than plenty for our own consumption; for putting – along with all the other goodies – in each of our villas for our guests to enjoy; and for selling as nice little take-home gifts.
But quite honestly, anything in excess of that would be more trouble than it’s worth.
I’ve seen some pretty nifty marketing ploys to help allay the costs – like adopting a tree and getting sent a litre of its oil each year. But leaving aside the sheer logistics of posting oil off round the world, you’re going to need an awful lot of adoptive parents to keep your olive grove going and growing year after year. (And hoping the dreaded Olive Fly doesn’t strike and obliterate their annual treat…)
If You Don’t Strike Oil, You Can Always Lay An Egg…
And if not olives – livestock ? I could easily be persuaded to keep a few hens. It’s something that’s always appealed – but I’ve never quite taken the plunge.
Most of our neighbours have backyard birds, but every time I think I’ve convinced myself to go down the road and cadge an egg-producing starter kit off Rocco or Giuseppe, the nagging reality kicks in that hens need feeding and watering; and shelter; and protection from foxes; and cleaning-out and care. If you have the time for these responsibilities – great. I’m not sure I do. And with that reality check, enthusiasm wanes.
Maybe someday. But not yet.
Sheep and goats ? Even little Jacob Sheep to keep the grass short and nibble daintily on the olive tree prunings; or a goat for milk and cheese ? No. Nor pigs. Basically not anything that needs the same amount of attention as a chicken – only scaled-up.
Cats are exempt from all this careful consideration of course.
But I digress.
Vines ? Well…if you’ve got a lot of suitable land – and you really need to start thinking of an acre-plus for growing on a commercial scale – you can get EU and local grants for planting, but I have no idea how many bureaucratic hoops you’d need to jump through to get hold of these.
Don’t forget either it’ll be at least three years after planting before you can even think about wine-making.
Pretty well all wine production around here’s done by local co-operatives, who’ll readily buy your grapes, provided they meet quality/quantity prerequisites. So while, unless you grow sufficiently vast amounts (and can afford the investment in wine-making equipment), you’ll never actually produce your very own wine, you would be able to flourish a bottle of co-op Montepulciano; or Trebbiano; or Pecorino and reasonably claim that inside was a drop or two of your own grape juice.
But if not olives, livestock, or grapes – then what ? A smallholding may possibly be the most realistic idea. An acre of good productive land would make a family of four largely self-sufficient in fruit, veg, dairy and meat. Five acres – a couple of hectares, and by no means a big ask here – could be spectacular.
But the key is ‘good productive land’ and the skill, physical ability and luck to make your smallholding flourish in what can be a harsh and unforgiving environment. If you have considerable self-sufficiency experience, I can see the desire to try would be irresistible. But the price of failure would be horrendous.
The point glimmering behind all this is to have the clearest idea of what you can realistically expect to do with your newly-acquired slice of Italy when you embark on your property purchase here.
Which can be radically different to what you might want to do.
I’ll tell you what we did with our acre of stones, weeds and blue clay next time…