Palo Alto Weekly

Real Estate - December 17, 2010

A pressing need

Palo Altans become 'weekend farmers" in south Monterey County — and bring fresh-milled olive oil home

by Sally Schilling

Stay-at-home Palo Alto mom May Chevallier has become a passionate "weekend farmer" over the past few years: She harvested olives from her own orchard in King City on Nov. 28.

In just her second year, her 20-acre orchard yielded 600 gallons of olive oil, compared to 20 gallons last year.

That first year her oil was used as gifts for friends and for her kids' orchestra fundraiser. Today it's for sale locally, available at Common Ground in Palo Alto, and The Milk Pail and Esther's German Bakery in Mountain View.

"They are like candy; they make wonderful holiday gift items," she said.

Chevallier has been making the two-hour drive down to her farm mostly on weekends, but it depends on her kids' schedules. "My kid has a project this evening, otherwise I would be there," she said.

While she modestly calls herself a "weekend farmer," Chevallier's family farming project is hardly comparable to your average weekend hobby.

But having a farm is something that she has always wanted to do.

"It started with an urge to own land," said Chevallier, who discovered this desire while she was helping her kids with a school project.

Her daughter's fourth-grade mission project was on San Antonio De Padua in the Valley of the Oaks in southern Monterey County. "I was taken aback by the beauty and the quiet. There were oak trees galore. It stirred a feeling to grow something," she said.

Chevallier has lived in Palo Alto for 35 years and has four children, two grown and twins in eighth grade.

"I thought, I want to do something for myself, and the kids are old enough now," said Chevallier, who has been a stay-at-home mom for 30 years.

In 2007, she and her husband Christophe bought 160 acres in King City. "My husband was crazy enough to buy some land for our adventure," she said.

Then, the question was, what to do with all of this land? By chance, UC Davis was doing some olive-growing classes, tastings and a grower's forum. She and her husband went to check it out.

Soon she was motivated to plant olive trees.

"It's an opportunity to produce fresh olive oil and UCD is helping us along, with seminars, tasting panels and competitions," she said.

She has also gained a lot of support from a network of other olive farmers with whom she meets. They are generous sharing their farming knowledge and enjoy talking about farming.

Once she began farming, she found it fascinating to witness nature.

"It seems so simple; you give something water and you let it grow," she said. "The trees bloom and then olives come in a few weeks. It's magic!"

She has about 10,000 olive trees in her orchard, with about eight different varieties of Spanish, Italian and French olives.

She named her orchard Cloud 9 because the wild pigs in the area are fenced out of her "little piece of heaven."

"They would come down in the evenings and frolic on the land. I had to keep them out," she said.

Chevallier has learned how to manage the olive farm as she goes.

While it is more costly, she has employed natural and sustainable practices from the ground up. "I used to think the organic movement is overdone, but when you get involved, you get passionate about it," she said.

To enrich her overgrazed land, she bought 800 tons of compost to amend the soil before the trees were planted. Now twice a year she adds worm castings and other soil supplements. "After a few more years of this, the land will become nice and rich and will be self-sustaining," she said.

One hired worker maintains the orchard. She doesn't hire 40 people because she feels it lessens the quality of work.

Chevallier prefers not to use heavy equipment in the orchard. Instead, they have a little farm utility vehicle that she calls her "mule."

Her husband, a Silicon Valley semiconductor executive by weekday, is the irrigation manager, electrical manager and general maintenance guy.

Four families helped her family with the first harvest, but this year, the harvest came three weeks earlier than she had planned. She hired 90 harvesters and they picked for eight hours. "We had to harvest because the cold spell would cause the fruit to spoil. I didn't have time to tell my friends about it," she said.

A friend with a mobile mill was able to press the olives the day after they harvested them. "We got to taste the oil as it was coming off right there. How fresh can you get?" she said.

Even three years ago nobody knew that California was producing olive oil, she said. Right now only 1 percent of olive oil is produced in the U.S, but this is slowly changing.

She emphasized the values of fresh local olive oil that are lacking in the imported brands you find in a grocery store. The reason Italian olive tastes so good in Italy — but not nearly as good here — is the freshness, she said.

Though not required, Chevallier puts the shelf date of the oil on her label.

While common knowledge says you should use your olive oil within two years, she suggests that you "eat it chop-chop."

She and her husband have bonded over sharing this project and her kids have enjoyed it as well.

"The kids love it, at night the stars appear bright away from the city lights, they saw the Milky Way for the first time," she said of her property, where you can find quail, pumas, mountain lions, rattlesnakes, scorpions, along with the wild pigs.

"My husband discovered bees on the land and now he wants to start bee keeping. He also is planting oaks," she said pointing to her back porch with dozens of old milk and juice cartons with tiny greens sprouting from them.

Chevallier was reluctant to tell her mother about her big project. When she finally did tell her, something unexpected happened. Her mother said, "You are the 28th generation to own land and grow things."

Chevallier was very surprised. She had been wondering about where her deep desire to farm came from.

"Maybe there is something in our genes that draws us to land owning," she said.

For information on Chevallier's orchard, visit www.cloud9orchard.com.

Editorial Intern Sally Schilling can be e-mailed at sschilling@paweekly.com.

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