Reinventing As An Olive Farmer

"I wanted to fill the hillsides with something that would grow."

By Jenny Rough
Joyce Lukon, owner of Robinson Road Olive Ranch

 Six years ago, at 60, tax accountant Lukon hit a turning point. Unmarried and childless, she recognized that she didn’t need a partner to help her pursue her dreams. “It took me a long time to realize that I should make my own plans,” she said. So she bought a stunning, sun-drenched piece of property in Topanga Canyon, near Los Angeles. Her parcel was large enough (three and a half acres) that she figured she could generate income by “filling the hillsides with something that would grow.”

That first year, she planted 200 grapevines, knowing they would take seven years to mature. Then she discovered the book Olives: The Life and Lore of a Noble Fruit. She says she quickly became “besotted” with the idea of raising olives and had her soil analyzed. The verdict: Her land was perfectly suited to olives, and she immediately ordered 1,000 Spanish Arbequina trees. “They grow fast and are well suited to high-density planting,” she says. “But it never occurred to me to taste Arbequina oil before making the investment; that’s how ignorant I was.” Shortly afterward, she did taste a sample of the oil and to her relief found it was heavenly. 

Lukon took out a $300,000 loan to cover the start-up costs for the newly named Robinson Road Olive Ranch (robinsonroadoliveranch.com). While workers terraced her hillsides and installed an iron gate, deer fencing and irrigation, she spent weekends attending olive seminars and festivals. In May 2007, to help defray labor costs, she invited friends and clients to a big planting party. A year and a half later, the trees were lush and heavy with fruit, so this time she threw a harvest party. Afterward, she loaded 845 pounds of olives into a friend’s SUV and dropped them off with a local olive miller. The results were soon in: Her ranch had produced an impressive 214 bottles (375 ml each) of chartreuse-colored olive oil. Delighted, Lukon sold her entire inventory to friends at $30 apiece, and she won a silver medal in the California Olive Oil Council tasting contest. “Olive oils are like wines and chocolate,” she says, in that they taste different depending on the variety of the plant. “Mine tastes like buttah,” Lukon says proudly.

Her 2009 harvest looked promising at first, with almost 2,400 pounds of olives. But Lukon didn’t realize that cooler evenings had slowed down the olives’ ripening schedule, and she picked them too early. “I should have had 600 bottles, but I ended up with only 400,” she says. “That’s just part of being an entrepreneur. I’m learning by trial and error.” 

Lukon’s income tax job perfectly complements her farming season. “After April 15, it’s time to gear up for the grapes and then the olives,” she says. It fascinates her to watch the olives go from budding white blossoms to mature fruits in hues that change from green to yellowish to a rosy blush. “You can almost hear the growth surge. I really am in love with my olives.”

Originally published in the July/August 2010 issue of More under the title FIELDS OF DREAMS.

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