Season 3 Episode 7

Lucia Gamez

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This Week's Guest:

Lucia Gamez

Dehesa de la Sabina Producer

Just five years ago, a group of neighboring farmers in Sierra de Cazorla, Spain decided to work together and produce high-quality olive oil with respect for the environment.

Since then, their Dehesa de la Sabina monovarietal Picual has garnered critical acclaim including, this year, the Best in Class Award at the New York International Olive Oil Competition.

The members of La Olivilla are determined to do more than creating a world-class product, however. They are showing their community a better way to farm that restores nature’s delicate balance and setting an example for a new generation.

Curtis Cord
In the heart of the olive oil world, Andalucia, Spain, eight families decided not long ago to convert their groves to organic farming and join together to form the group, La Olivilla. They are strong advocates of environmental protection and a common dream, sharing their treasured oil with the rest of the world. Dehesa de La Sabina, a medium intensity Picual, monovarietal, won the coveted Best In Class award at this year’s New York International Olive Oil competition a few weeks ago. Now, the members of La Olivilla have begun experimenting with biodynamic farming techniques, and the group is working with local schools to raise awareness of sustainable and responsible farming with children. One gets the sense that La Olivilla is doing just about everything to produce a sustainable, healthy, and delicious world-class product.

Lucia Gamez is the daughter of one of the producers, and Lucia has taken on the task of developing the presence of the brand in the U.S. market. She joins us today from a small town by the name of Quesada in Cazorla, Andalucia. Lucia, good morning.

Lucia Gamez
Good morning. How are you?

Curtis Cord
I’m doing well, and you?

Lucia Gamez
I’m very well, thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here talking to you.

Curtis Cord
First, let’s talk about these families who comprise this group, La Olivilla. What are the farms like?

Lucia Gamez
All eight farmers are from the same area. They have inherited their groves from their parents and their grandparents. So they have … olive trees are between 30 to 500 years old and while their parents were working the land, they all wanted to learn different things. So my father, for example, started tourism in the university then went to work in the hotel industry, but after a while … then, as everybody in the area inherited the land and takes over from there. That was pretty much the situation for all eight farmers. They inherited the land and they needed to find a way to work it. When they all met, they all had issues with the olive trees, the olive groves, of different types, but essentially they felt they had to take care of these very old trees, very valuable trees, some of them up to 500 years old. And they seemed to be dying.

And all eight were having an issue. They were looking for solutions and they all went towards trying organic farming. It was a big unknown, they didn’t know what else to do. They had invited technicians to their olive groves. And they’ve tried everything they had been advised. The one thing that had not tried yet was organic farming. To do that they enrolled first in some studies for organic farming, how to do that. The organic farming techniques. And so that’s how they all met, during this course.

Curtis Cord
So these eight farms, how big of an area are we talking about?

Lucia Gamez
There are about 20 acres. Hectares. La Olivilla is a very small producer.

Curtis Cord
And how much oil will you produce this year?

Lucia Gamez
We produce, for Dehesa de La Sabina, this year, 20,000 liters.

Curtis Cord
And what does it mean, “Dehesa de La Sabina”?

Lucia Gamez
One of our main groves has a juniper tree right in the middle of the grove. Juniper is called “sabina” in Spain. We refer to the grove as the grove of the juniper tree, and that’s essentially what it means.

Curtis Cord
So they started with organic farming and then what happened?

Lucia Gamez
When they all met, after they finished the organic farming studies, they had the idea of joining forces and producing olive oil together. The next question is, what was gonna be their method, how are they going to enter the market? Obviously, they are a very small producer, so the quantity was not gonna be our way. Quality was the way for us. So that was the approach.

Curtis Cord
And how was the quality in the beginning?

Lucia Gamez
In the beginning, not so good. This has been a learning process from year one. We have followed … our journey has been very short, it only begun back in 2012 with our first harvest. So as you can see it’s a really, very short journey, but very intense. And every year passing by has been a learning process. From understanding that a very, very small, what seemed to be a small mistake in the production, in the harvest, actually was identified by the expert test tasters of a jury panel in a competition, for example — if you don’t clean your blankets with which you collect all the olives, if you don’t clean those blankets extremely well, that is going to be perceived, amazing as it sounds, by the olive oil sommelier, or the expert taster. They can tell you that your blankets were not thoroughly cleaned when you harvested the olives. So those are things that we learned starting from the first year. It’s been a learning process. The quality, indeed, to answer your question, has not been the same. But we’ve been very persistent, and things like entering competitions, having the feedback from the members of the jury panel and also winning awards have encouraged us to do better and better every year and to continue to do research on how to produce better quality olive oil.

Curtis Cord
All of the trees are harvested by hand?

Lucia Gamez
We have a mix of processes. Some of them are mechanical means and the other manual. Because of the area where we are, we are in a mountain range, we have a lot of inclinations in some of our grove. It is practically impossible to enter the grove with machinery, heavy machinery. So in those areas, we need to do it manually, using the traditional methods, like the cane stick that we use to brush the branches, not to hit it. Normally people think that you hit the branches, but what we do is to actually brush them and sort of caress the branches and then the olives fall. And then we have to manually suspend the blanket. And then one of the things that we do that is very important for our farming technique is mulching. Because of the mulching layer, the blankets actually never get touch the ground. So we make sure that there is no earth defect in the olive oil after. That’s the manual ones.

Then the ones where we can follow mechanical means, we have vibrator brushes, like a comb, to comb the branches. And then we have vibrator that hacks the tree and has an inverted umbrella that goes around the tree and so the olives fall on to the inverted umbrella.

Curtis Cord
When you shake the tree, do even the less ripe olives fall off or are those the riper ones?

Lucia Gamez
When you shake the tree, you do want to be careful with the tree. We don’t want to vibrate it too much. So there are always olives that are left behind and that’s where we intervene with the comb to help it.

Curtis Cord
I see.

Lucia Gamez
As opposed to strongly vibrating the tree.

Curtis Cord
The members of La Olivilla are not only focused on producing high-quality olive oil, but doing it in a way that protects and even restores the environment. You mentioned that traditional farming methods can disrupt the food chain of birds of prey, for example, whose numbers have dwindled there. Tell us about that.

Lucia Gamez
Indeed. I mean, I am very young. When I was little, I grew up among the olive trees and we used to see owls in each olive tree. At least it was one owl in each olive tree. We even have Spanish sayings around that. Today if you go to the groves, you see none. There are no birds of prey, no owls. They have slowly disappeared. There is essentially no life. When you drive around areas where there is a lot of olive farming, all you see is a lot of trees, which is beautiful, but if you pay attention, you look closely into the ground, the earth, it’s dead. It’s dry, it’s empty, there is no life in there. If there is no life, insects, birds, animals, cannot live in there. So they all go. And that’s what happening today. As a result, the olive tree largely depends on a human intervention to actually survive. Because there is no life in the earth, there is no nutrient and there is no natural way of fighting pests.

The other thing that we have that is affecting us largely, is we have water drought. There is no rain where we live. We are being impacted heavily by global warming, climate change. There used to be a lot of people cultivating cereals where we live. And they didn’t need any water other than the rainwater. Today it’s impossible. We have a dripped irrigation system in order to grow the olives. We cannot rely on rainwater alone. You need to have irrigation system. One of the things that we consider extremely important, and that’s part of the organic farming, is to recover the vegetation cover. The borders and the hedges. So what we do is, we allow the vegetation to grow until there is a big of a height, then we cut and that becomes the … a layer on the ground, the mulching that I was referring to before, and that is going to help the soil retain the moist and the nutrients. It will also help us to keep the actual blankets clean, never getting touched with the earth when we are doing the harvesting.

When we work on the vegetation cover, that’s actually our biggest challenge in the actual production. It is because there is no rain, there is no water, it is very complex to maintain the vegetation cover. And that’s the beginning of life. We need to make sure that there are plants, indigenous plants in there, local wild plants. Those plants, for example, some of them attract what we call the [foreign language 00:12:49]. That plant attracts the wasp, which is the natural enemy of the olive fly. If you have … that ecosystem always there, the entire ecosystem, one species is gonna take care of another. So for example, when you ask normally any olive farmer, what their main challenge in the recent years, often they tell you about pests. We all know this. It’s a challenge.

Lucky for us, in the past three, four years, the years we have been producing, working Dehesa de La Sabina, pests have not been an issue for us. There are pests, like everybody else. They are there. But they are naturally controlled because we have a mature ecosystem, a healthy ecosystem. There are other insects that are there taking care of them, eating them. And so what we do is starting the vegetation cover, we work our way up. In the plants, we attract the insects, we also partner with BirdLife International, it’s an ONG. What we realize is that we … there was one thing lacking in our ecosystem and that was the birds of prey. We didn’t know how to attract them, so we presented a project to BirdLife International about what our end goal is and what we wanted to do, and they found it very interesting. In fact, they think that in olive farming, olive farming is actually key to restoring the bird population.

So since we’ve been working together, it’s been about a year, what they do is they visit our groves and then they give us a guidance as to how to take it one step at a time, how to basically end up attracting the birds of prey. So starting from the beginning, which is making sure that there are certain plants in there that are local wild indigenous plants and then installing some … if the grove is in very bad condition, if actually back up with my answer, the location where we are is suffering a desertification process sometimes. Because of that and because of the lack of water, it is extremely complex to maintain the vegetation cover, so they, BirdLife International, is helping us with additional practices in terms of recovering the ecosystem. So sometimes they’ve told us we needed to install insect hotels, so we’ve partnered with schools to educate the kids and to help them help us so they’ve constructed insect hotels, they’ve constructed bird houses and then we’ve used them to install them in our groves and then help bring back birds that were going to be the actual food for the bird of prey.

They’ve also told us we needed to install bird baths in our groves. We also needed to install very high poles for the birds of prey to have vision very far away. A lot of these things that we’ve installed have been with the help of, in collaboration of the school children. It’s been very exciting for them and it’s been a way for us to make them feel a part of it and help them understand and through them, share the knowledge and raise the awareness in the area, because they will be talking to their parents too. Because we are a very small farmer, so our actions are important but it would help if other farmers also follow.

Curtis Cord
I was going to say that. We’re talking about 50 acres in the middle of Andalucia, which is the largest olive oil producing region. And so you see this problem as widespread, don’t you?

Lucia Gamez
Yes, indeed. Traditional farming methods, conventional farming methods, abuse of chemicals as we all know, and these chemicals end up killing all sorts of life or weeds, traditional call weeds. Weeds for us are immensely important because in the weeds there are plants that when they grow and when you cut them, they release nutrients very important to the tree, like potassium, for example. You need to go and put in there the synthetic chemicals. You can create all of those nutrients working with nature. Unfortunately, there is this education that needs to take place, of course all the … with all the other farmers.

Curtis Cord
And these school children that you work with, I can imagine that these are children whose families are farmers, millers, agronomists, or even work in the supply chain for olive oil. And so you’re working with them to instill this kind of environmental responsibility. I think that’s fantastic.

Lucia Gamez
Yes, indeed. We think it’s key to collaborating and work with the children, because indeed, where we live, everybody is a farmer, everybody works in the olive oil industry one way or another, whether it’s in the mill or in the packaging warehouse. Everybody has a least a few olive trees. So working with kids is the way to reach out to all of the farmers and talk to them about a different way of doing things.

Curtis Cord
There were more Picual best in class winners this year at the competition than any other variety. There were three Picual best in class. There were two Frantoios and two Coratinas. What is it about the Picual olive that makes such a winning oil?

Lucia Gamez
It’s interesting. I am not too sure I know this answer in Spain and that’s because we are used to the Picual. It’s the variety … even though we have over 200 varieties in Spain alone, the one that is more largely produced is the Picual. One of the reasons why is because it has a longer shelf life, it’s a more stable oil. So that’s why it’s more heavily or largely produced. In terms of the market outside Spain, it is actually surprising to me that they would prefer a Picual or that a Picual would win, because their palate is used to a more, a milder oil, like would be an Arbequina, for example. That is milder and fruitier.

Curtis Cord
But it does win.

Lucia Gamez
But it does win, indeed. For us, one thing that we’ve been observing is even though it’s a Picual, and it normally is a very robust oil, over the years we’ve been achieving more harmony and balance in the oil. So in our first year, our oil had over 800 polyphenols. And the fruitness was a little lower, so it was not very balanced. It was a very strong, very bitter olive oil. Very healthy, but I remember that’s how I started importing it when I started importing it to the U.S. And so I would go to the market, the farmer’s markets in Manhattan, and talk to people, try to educate them and gave them oil to try and to see what their reaction was and what they thought about actual extra virgin olive oil. And their reaction often was like, “Ooh, this is very bitter. This is very strong. I’m not sure that I can use this.”

But surprisingly, over the years, two things happened for us, our oil … we found a way to achieve harmony and balance between the bitterness, pepperiness, and fruitness, even though as a Picual that’s very, very difficult to achieve with a Picual in an early green harvest. But also people have been very interested in learning how to identify a good olive oil. They see so many articles in the newspaper. So many news programs on the T.V. talking about olive oil, olive oil corruption, and they’re also very interested in health, more and more I find. I’ve observed that in the U.S. So they want to know what is it that they’re consuming and how to identify a good from a bad oil. And one thing they’ve learned and that have stuck with them is look out for the pepperiness, the bitterness. It’s a good thing. It’s a healthy thing. It’s a positive attribute. So when you try a Picual, it’s a strong Picual, whereas in the past they would reject it immediately. Now they see the bitterness and the pepperiness and quickly they think, “Ah yes, this is a good attribute.”

Curtis Cord
It’s a positive development and we hope that continues. Do you live in New York, Lucia?

Lucia Gamez
I do. I live in New York. In fact, now I live in Montclair.

Curtis Cord
In New Jersey?

Lucia Gamez
Yes, in New Jersey, yes.

Curtis Cord
Tell us about what you do here in the United States for La Olivilla.

Lucia Gamez
Essentially trying to develop the market there. I started four years ago with our first harvest. I was driven by the crisis that we had in Spain, the economic crisis. In the middle of the economic crisis, we were starting in this venture of the La Olivilla, producing Dehesa de La Sabina. And I wanted them to be successful. It seemed to be a very good oil, so my way of helping them was to import it to the U.S. and develop the market here. So I started with actual, a small quantity and reaching out to the end consumer because I didn’t know anything about the market, so one of the reasons why I started going to the farmers market is to actually have a way of interacting with the end consumer. See their reaction, what do they think about olive oil, how mature the consumer was in terms of understanding olive oil, how do they consume it. And from there, today, I have developed a distribution channel using outsourcing methods like Amazon.

Curtis Cord
Yes. You recently said you began working with Amazon where you can find Dehesa de La Sabina for about 23 dollars for a 500-milliliter bottle, which is worth every penny. You also offer it directly through the Best Olive Oils marketplace.

Lucia Gamez
Yes.

Curtis Cord
How much of your U.S. business is wholesale at this point? Or is it mostly directly to the consumer?

Lucia Gamez
It’s mostly directly to the consumer. We have only just started working on the wholesale business. Entering the wholesale is challenging. There aren’t many buyers. It’s almost like an olive oil [inaudible 00:25:39] and it’s hard to enter. The olive oil is treated like a commodity, almost like when you refer to gold or petrol, the price of a barrel is X today. And olive oil, unfortunately, is being treated today like a commodity. When you reach out to distributors of bulk olive oil, they tell you the market price of olive oil today is 3.2 per liter and they expect you to match that price. And it’s all, therefore, very difficult. It should be not the case. Nobody would think of treating a very high-end wine that way. We’re talking about high-quality olive oil. And so it’s difficult. I think there is an education process and we’re gonna have to wait a little bit until that mentality changes.

Curtis Cord
How about after winning the best in class award a few weeks ago? Have you found that that opens any doors for you?

Lucia Gamez
It certainly helps positioning the brand because otherwise you’re a very small producer in a competitive market. There are many, many oils out there. Many big players aggressively competing. And competition is very good because it forces you to produce good quality olive oil, but it makes it very difficult for the small players entering the market. So things like competitions [inaudible 00:27:20] New York, international olive oil competition that issues a sticker, official sticker that we can put on the bottle. It really helps, yes.

Curtis Cord
To be honest, I breathe a sigh of relief when I looked down on the list just before the press conference and when I see for the first time that in fact, that I will be able to handout a Best in Class Award that evening. With just 18 Best in Class winners there’s a high possibility that there won’t be a Best in Class producer in attendance that night, but you were there. You were standing in the back and you momentarily left the floor when your name was called. You jumped. And you came up. Did your team watch the announcements on the live stream from Spain or did you call or text them?

Lucia Gamez
They watched it online on the streaming video. They were all waiting for the moment nervously. And I knew they were watching. But nonetheless, after the ceremony, I called them. It was very late in Spain, but we called each other. It is always a very emotional moment. We never take it for granted, we never know what’s gonna happen. Every year there are more and more. When we first started competing, there were 600, then 700, 800, this year there were over 900. There are more and more producers and more and more are trying to do better and higher quality. So it’s never a given if you get an award that you’re gonna get it the following year. And getting best in class was such an honor for us. I called them and it was even difficult to talk because all you wanted to do is cry of emotion.

Curtis Cord
So what’s next for La Olivilla?

Lucia Gamez
What we want to do is to increase the presence in the market and to continue to advance in improving our ecosystem because we believe we have a responsibility, especially in the area where we are, the desertification process. So those are the two main things all while continuing to improve the quality or maintain the quality level.

Curtis Cord
Lucia Gamez works with La Olivilla. They’re producers of the award-winning Dehesa de La Sabina extra virgin olive oil. She joined us today from Cazorla, Andalucia. Lucia, this was fascinating. Thank you very much.

Lucia Gamez
Thank you. This is such a pleasure. Such an honor.

  • Anne

    A little, 50-acre patch of hope in a world where there is too little. Thank you.