Written and Photographed by Felicia Friesema
contest: The god who gave mankind its most valuable gift would win. Athena produced an olive tree.
That story is one of many—thousands, really—that pepper a rich agricultural history dating back to 6,000 BC, when it was first discovered that the wild olive, Olea europaea, could be grafted and propagated to produce an oil with myriad uses that spanned from sacred symbolism to healing skin afflictions and digestive disorders to fueling lamps and stoves to providing essential and flavorful nourishment.
This history is lovingly explored in Mort Rosenblum’s book Olives: The Life and Lore of a Noble Fruit in passionate and exhaustive detail. This is the tome that found its way into the hands of Joyce Lukon in 2007. As a newly minted landowner in Topanga Canyon, Lukon was hoping to turn a hard-scrabble, hilly former nudist colony parcel into a productive farm. Over 800 Arbequina and Arbosana olive trees—Spanish varietals known for their high oil content and mild and buttery flavor profile—now fill the three and a half acre property she has dubbed Robinson Road Olive Ranch, a piquant reminder of the all-but-forgotten days of the agricultural potency of Los Angeles County.
“It was awful. It was a dump,” said Lukon, visibly grimacing at the memory of the property when she bought it in 2004. “It was all weeds and pony walls and bamboo shades. Like somebody was hiding here.
The present landscape doesn’t even hint at its former blight. A long, winding driveway is bordered on both sides by lush, lacey and closely planted olive trees, pruned short for easier harvesting and increased yields. A carefully xeriscaped garden full of lavender and rosemary is at the bottom of the driveway next to a towering canyon live oak. Grape vines—Lukon also makes her own Bordeaux-style wine—take up about an acre of the property. The rest belongs to the olives.
The time it takes to go from grape to wine is about three to five years. Lukon was willing to wait, but she also wanted something more immediately usable. Reading Rosenblum’s book hit her like lightning.
“I said, ‘Oh, my God, I have to grow olives.’ It was one of those things. It totally changed my life. I’ve never been able to say that about anything. His own love affair with olives and his voice and the history of olives—it was so interesting to me.”
Given the relatively small acreage and steep terrain, both of which prevented the use of ladders and harvest machinery, and Lukon’s goals for a swift harvest, they settled on super-dense planting of specially bred Spanish olives in closely spaced rows with trees that are only four feet apart, mimicking the size and pruning of her grapevines. These trees would mature in as little as two years unlike traditional olive trees, which are widely spaced and usually take from three to seven years to reach fruit-bearing age.
That quick harvest payoff comes at a price: Lukon’s trees will need to be replanted in 12 to 15 years. The slower-growing olive trees—like that old Mission olive next to the house—have been known to last for hundreds of years. It was a choice that suited her and her land’s limitations.
“On Cinco de Mayo in 2007, my olive trees arrived,” reminisces Lukon. “The guy opened the truck and I peered into this dark space and I could barely see them. I thought to myself, ‘How could there be 1,000 olive trees in this truck?’ It was such a big thrill to me. It was an emotional thing.
“The holes were already dug. The irrigation was already in and the deer fence was already installed. They took them out of the truck and put them under the oak tree. I had a big party and invited every person I know in the world to come over and help plant them.”
Robinson Road is not certified organic but 32 edible westside fall 2013 uses approved organic practices (“Getting the oil certified as extra-virgin by the California Olive Oil Council was the only certification I really cared about,” she said) and protects her orchard against the bane of olive growers all over the state—the olive fruit fly—with an organically approved (and very effective) pesticide called Spinosad.
Lukon used to sell her oil at local farmers markets but quit face-to face selling in her first year. She now just sells her oil online at RobinsonRoadOliveRanch.com and at Canyon Gourmet in Topanga and at Lindy & Grundy Local, Pastured and Organic Meats in Los Angeles.
“I’m really uncomfortable selling my stuff. And there’s still a lack of consumer knowledge about the product. I mean, when you can buy something called extra-virgin olive oil at the grocery store for $6, it’s hard to compete. But most of that is cut with other oils. It can be an inferior olive oil and it likely isn’t extra-virgin. Mine is.”
“I have a strange affinity for making olive oil,” said Lukon. “I’d like to buy more land and plant more olives. They’re easy to take care of. They aren’t susceptible to a whole lot of things. And olive oil is instant. There’s no aging process. There is something about a place like this, and you just want to grow and grow as much as you can.”