Our Farming Practices
Finding a balance to provide a great food product that is safe, environmentally sound and sustainable is our mission.
Is your extra virgin olive oil Natural? Organic? Grown Sustainably? These are questions we get quite regularly, however rarely are we asked if it's grown safely?
Natural: Yes olive oil can definitely be considered an “all natural” food product. It's essentially taking fresh olives with just the right amount of ripeness and crushing into a paste, malaxing or stirring that paste, and then extracting the oil from the dry matter and water. The extracted oil is really a fresh olive juice. Which is why it is best consumed earlier rather than later. If processing olives into oil is completed without any hormones, antibiotics, sweeteners, food colors, or flavorings, we would claim by definition that this is a “natural” food product. However the consumer should know that a large percentage of olive oil particularly outside the U.S. is extracted and or changed using additives. Reasons for this are to help either speed up processing, change the color or even add flavor to an oxidized and old oil before getting to your pantry. Do not be fooled by all food product labels claiming to be “natural”. Neither the FDA or USDA has rules for “natural”. The truth is in the United States the term “natural” is not defined and not enforced so therefore it is used quite carelessly. Yes, Red Rock Olive Oil is a “natural” or “all natural” product that can be trusted, without any hormones, antibiotics, sweeteners, food colors, or flavorings.
Organic: We see claims of “organic” on food product labels every day and have to always wonder... Similar to “natural”, what does this term “organic” really mean. It implies that the product is produced using methods that do not use modern inputs. Is that a good thing? While I can appreciate the ideals and intentions, once again the use of such a term has wide array of meanings. At least in this example the U.S. attempted to define the term. However did you know the legislation allows three levels of “organic” foods. “100% organic”, “organic”, and “made with organic ingredients”. Only the first two levels are allowed to display the USDA Organic seal. Putting the word “organic” on your label does not guarantee the product is legitimately organic. That is where a certification comes into play. Under 2002 legislation you are restricted to use the term unless you are certified. With the exception of growers selling under $5,000/year who are not required to be certified. Certification is handled by state, non-profit and private agencies approved by the USDA. CCOF is a good example of such an organization.
So let's assume that everything labeled as “organic” has such a true certification then the question becomes, is this a good thing and what does it really mean? Photos of organic farms spreading fertilizer, in many cases compost or manure, or photos showing the weed vegetation that is pervasive on the farm are common examples ways of demonstrating their organic practices. While we agree that limiting pesticide use and synthetic inputs is worthy, we are not certain that it is so black and white that a product “organically grown” vs non “organically” grown is such a positive thing for your health and the environment. To demonstrate our point, let us offer an example:
If we were to stop using any herbicides to control weeds, we would likely have quite a crop of “noxious” or “invasive” weeds within our olive orchard. Marestail, Fleabane, and Starthistle and examples of such weeds that are difficult to manage in our area and can have serious environmental impacts if they get out of control. The USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service provides a list per state of such species. Considering the four neighboring farmers are all doing their best to also control such weeds, our theoretical “organic” farm could actually cause them to have to increase their frequency and intensity of herbicide applications in order to prevent these weeds spreading into their fields if we are not controlling them properly. The net effect could be increased overall pesticide use. So while we may have a marketing advantage on the store shelf because we are “organic”, am I really doing the overall environment and neighboring crops any benefit? Sure some other methods of weed control exist beyond herbicides, but each of those comes with their own inefficiency or environmental impact as well. Alternatively, with some very well timed and selective applications, we can manage the weeds with minimal herbicide applications and prevent contact to any fruit that is later to be processed and bottle for the consumer. In our example weed control is managed before fruit is even set on the tree in late spring. This is accomplished while working hand in hand with neighboring farming practices to not increase their pesticide/herbicide use as well. This example could also apply to many other crops and specifically pests or insecticides. However there is no certification program for this sort of limited or ultra selective input management. So the short answer to the “organic” question is NO. Red Rock Olive Oil is not a certified organic product and will not be for the foreseeable future. In our case we are managing our farming practices with limited and specific inputs because we believe that this is a superior to being “organic” in terms of net benefits for the consumer, and the environment collectively.
Sustainable: This may be our favorite new “marketing” term because we do believe is has potential meaning. The problem is that meaning varies even more than either “natural” or “organic” depending on who you are talking to. It's really a shame because the term properly defined as related to agriculture and farming practices could be the most important of all these terms which are now nothing more than marketing lingo. The best definition of sustainable agriculture that we have found is as follows:
'the management and utilization of the agricultural ecosystem in a way that maintains its biological diversity, productivity, regeneration capacity, vitality, and ability to function, so that it can fulfill – today and in the future – significant ecological, economic and social functions at the local, national and global levels and does not harm other ecosystems’.
Let us jump right into an example to demonstrate my disappointment in the way the word sustainable has been interpreted. It has been suggested that our super high density olive plantings are not as “sustainable” as a traditional wide spaced olive orchard by an organic olive grower. Primarily the point was made in regards to our assumed use of mechanical methods to care for and harvest the crop vs their historical and human labor intensive based methods. We do mechanically harvest the crop rather than hand harvest as traditional olive orchards typically do. One reason for this is that no machine was developed for the way orchards were cultivated dating back decades and in some cases over hundred years ago. We detest the fact that an orchard that produces two to four times the yield with lesser total inputs and environmental impact is considered less sustainable. Let's start with the acreage argument. Modern agricultural practices have evolved to produce more food product on less land. Either feeding more humans or allowing additional acreage to remain native. Neither of those would we say are “less sustainable”. Now let's talk about total environmental impacts and we will use harvesting as an example. Four workers and a two tractors removed 90 tons of olives from our orchard in four days. A total of 160 laborer hours or 1,125 lbs per one laborer hour in our field. UC Davis hand picking studies show that fruit can be picked from 25 lbs per hour up to 110 lbs per hour by a single laborer with a similar size crop of 3 tons per acre. Therefore our mechanical harvest is 10 to 40 times more efficient in terms of labor hours. How does that correspond to environmental impacts? Our total fuel consumption during harvest of these tier 3 and 4 EPA registered tractor engines was less than 100 gallons. A handpicking crew would likely use more than that just being transported to the field daily if they lived within 10 miles of the field. Additional fuel would required by the tractors and equipment still necessary to get the crop to the field perimeter for picked up for transport to the processing facility. Unless the entire hand picking crew rode their bicycles to the field, I am fairly certain our environmental impact is significantly less and therefore could it be, “more sustainable”. Beyond fuel consumption, using less water, managing nitrates and fertility, and many other inputs can be saved for another discussion. However strong arguments could be made that each of those is also more sustainable in high density vs traditional density olive orchard farming. As another example to modern sustainable practices using advanced technology such as GPS guidance, soil moisture, weather forecasting and more are ways to improve yields by limiting inputs. LIFS or Low Input Farming Systems is a term used explain this attempt to become sustainable as defined earlier. Yes. Red Rock Olive Oil is grown through modern “sustainable” farming practices. We don’t just throw the word around to sell our product, we do the math and adopt the most efficient and responsible management of resources available while co-existing with the ecosystems around us.
Food Safety? Finally the question that should be asked. Is your food product safe? While nearly impossible to guarantee food safety, it is possible to manage that risk on the farm. Food-borne illness linked to pathogens such as E-Coli and Salmonella are a concern of consumers, regulators, attorneys, buyers, and of course farmers. The best place to start with food safety in in the field. While wildlife such as deer, rodents, birds, and even flies can carry risks, research shows that they have low prevalence for carrying food borne pathogens. To remove wildlife from the agricultural ecosystem is not necessarily the answer. In some cases removing natural predators is the wrong direction. Using this logic to apply pesticides has also proven valuable at times when pests invade your crops but spraying would eliminate the natural predators as well. Likewise using conservation techniques such as grassed water ways which offers filtering of pathogens that may wash into surface waters or be carried with dust in the wind is and example of our practices. Managing a cover crop on the orchard floor to support microbial activity improves nutrient cycling in another. Meanwhile manure or compost use needs to be done correctly or it will favor pathogen survival. For example manure or compost must but be brought to 131 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 days to kill pathogens. Is that being properly completed and monitored where being used? We are sure it is in most cases, but it's another example of managing risk in regards to food safety. At Red Rock Olive Oil our conservation and agronomic practices while promoting wildlife and “sustainable” farming are balanced with food safety risk management. While removing fences and managing wildlife areas and corridors, we promote coexistence of agriculture and the natural environment, but do so by also keeping track of the wildlife activity in the agricultural areas. Not allowing livestock in the fields is an example of putting food safety above what's considered a favorable farming/marketing practice such as some who promote these organic practices. Yes. Red Rock Olive Oil intends to provide you with the safest product we can. We put food safety as our highest priority.
Finding a balance to provide a great food product that is safe, environmentally sound and sustainable is our mission. Educating based on that mission is what we enjoy.
By Derek Moffitt
Owner and Grower of Red Rock Olive Oil of California