Leasing an olive orchard in Sunol wasn’t really part of the plan — at least not right now. But when Berkeley resident Kathryn Tomajan was approached to take over a small, three-acre orchard by one of her consulting clients who was ready to retire, she couldn’t say no.
Tomajan has spent years milling, tasting and certifying olive oil, but she had never learned the first thing about taking care of the actual olive trees. “It’s crazy [that] I don’t know anything about tree management when I know so much about the rest of the olive oil industry,” she said.
But Tomajan had gotten to know the orchard’s owners, D’Aun and Roy Goble, while helping them produce their oil. The Gobles told Tomajan that they were ready to back off of the business and start transitioning towards retirement. They offered her an affordable two-year lease on the orchard that, crucially, included water.
Tomajan had also been helping out another friend who had a plot of land nearby, “and I kind of had a crush on Sunol anyways,” she said. So, despite the fact that Tomajan seems to have her hands in too many jobs and organizations to count — she runs an annual event for food leaders called Eat Retreat, manages marketing for Berkeley’s Local Butcher Shop, mills oil for Enzo Olive Oil and serves on the California Olive Oil Council‘s sensory panel — she said yes.
Taking over the orchard not only afforded her a low-risk opportunity to learn about a different part of the industry, but it also gave her an opening to develop a modern olive oil brand, one free of the pretension and preciousness that can characterize the industry.
Not to mention, she already had an enthusiastic life and business partner, ready to dive in.
Robin Sloan may be most well known for his bestselling novel, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, but now he’s also a marketing and communications director for the couple’s burgeoning olive oil company, Fat Gold.
“He’s also a good few inches taller than me,” said Tomajan, “so he’s pruning the really tall branches.”
It only takes one glance at Fat Gold’s website to see that Tomajan and Sloan are serious about keeping the company’s branding fun and accessible. Saturated yellows and pinks dominate the site’s design, and its name, already perky, is lit up with bright colors and a typeface that looks as if it was written with a fat-tip Sharpie.
“We’re bringing a young mind to the olive oil game,” said Tomajan.
Similarly, Tomajan and Sloan are channeling the tech-savvy nature of many other young Bay Area entrepreneurs and installing a bit of computer-based ingenuity into their orchard. “Robin is being a total tech nerd,” said Tomajan.
Sloan found out about new orchard-tracking software developed at an olive farm in Chile that makes it much easier to keep track of the regular care of individual trees. A tag with a scannable code is placed on each tree, or row of trees, and then Tomajan and Sloan can simply scan the code with their phones to tap into data like how much the tree was watered that day, or when it was last pruned.
“It will make it so much easier to keep up with tree management,” said Tomajan. “There are other tracking programs for larger orchards, but on a small scale there’s not a lot available.”
Keeping orchard management simple will be key for the couple, since they’re planning to do it all themselves — short of an ad hoc mentorship program with D’Aun Goble. “She’s overseeing the pruning process, helping me know what to do,” said Tomajan.
“And I’ve totally fallen in love with pruning trees,” Tomajan continued. “I thought it was going to be really stressful, but it’s satisfying, meditative really. … When you prune a tree, it starts out looking all scraggly and then you have to make a decision [about where to cut. You] imagine where the branches would go if you didn’t touch it. And it’s scary to cut but you have to think that by cutting off branches, you’re making an investment in future olives.”
Those olives, which come in six Italian varietals — frantoio, leccino, maurino, moraiolo, pendolino and taggiasca — on the Fat Gold orchard, will need to be harvested in the fall for the company’s first olive oil release in January 2018. And this presents the next challenge for Tomajan and Sloan.
Fat Gold’s orchard contains only 372 trees — a “micro-farm,” as Tomajan calls it — but it’s still not small enough for the couple to call up their friends to help with the harvest. They’ll need to hire a harvest crew to come in and help.
“This is the trickiest part for us,” said Tomajan. “I know so much about the issues around agricultural labor practices and … it will be hard to find harvest services that are up to my standards.” Not to mention the fact that their budget for harvest is slimmer than they’d like.
When the Gobles were running the orchard, they were able to afford to bring on the same crew they used to harvest their nearby grape orchard. Since grape harvesters can command a higher wage than olive harvesters, “I’m sure they paid a lot for it,” said Tomajan. “We can’t afford to do it that way.”
Tomajan said she’d also like to harvest each varietal separately to afford them the most flexibility when it comes to milling and blending. Giving each type of olive harvest its own separate week, Tomajan and Sloan can make both blends and single varietal oils, depending on how the olives taste.
Of course, Tomajan will also need to source a mill with which to press the olives. Like many other small olive oil operations, the Fat Gold orchard does not have its own mill and must lease time from another company. And because Tomajan has spent much of her olive oil career at milling oils, she is exceptionally picky when it comes to olive mills.
Not only does she need to find a mill that handles the small volume of olives she’ll be bringing in, she also needs to find one that will take care of the olives properly and the 200 to 250 gallons of oil they’ll produce. “There are only a few places I’d trust,” she said.
Once the oil is made, Tomajan and Sloan plan to sell it entirely by subscription, eschewing the more typical retail route. Subscription sales will allow them to keep as much of their profit margin as possible and will help them build a wider online network.
Tomajan hopes to bottle the oils in “small squatty tins” that will likely evoke the same lightheartedness as the website. “We don’t want to make a precious, super expensive product,” she said. “Those olive oils that are so expensive you have to do a double take when you see them on the shelf — we’re not doing that.”
However, she is quick to acknowledge the financial challenges of making a high-quality product on such a small scale: “It will cost what it costs because of the reality of having a small farm. So [the oil] won’t be super cheap, but we want to try to keep it accessible.”
Tomajan said she and Sloan crunched the numbers and, no matter what, they don’t expect to make much money. “Hopefully with the subscription model we won’t lose money, or maybe make a small profit.” To Tomajan, Fat Gold is a side project, one that will offer a crash course in orchard management, so profit or no, it’s still worth it for her.
If things go well this year, Tomajan may use her experience with Fat Gold to help launch a kind of olive oil collective for young Bay Area growers. There’s already an existing network for growers in the area, and, she said, she’s already had members approach her about various abandoned olive groves, asking her if she’d take them over. “I’m like, ‘Woah guys, slow down,’ ” she said.
Still, taking over these abandoned groves can be a lower-cost entry point for young would-be olive farmers looking to get into the game. By creating a collective, Tomajan thinks she can help group people together to take care of these groves “without the crazy capital investment” of starting from scratch on one’s own.
But this cooperative fantasy is still in the future. Tomajan and Sloan still need to get through their first harvest season. As much as this side project for the couple presents its challenges, “I feel really lucky that this fell into my lap,” said Tomajan. “And [Robin] has been really encouraging, a total partner. I wouldn’t be able to do this on my own.”