Terroir and the Agricultural Ecology of McEvoy Ranch “…to produce the highest quality olive oil;” with these few words, Nan McEvoy expresses her vision and principal objective for the Ranch. This deceptively simple phrase, with its explicit emphasis on highest quality, begs the question: what are the specific factors which influence flavor, aroma, nutritional value; in short, quality. The answer is complex; olive varietal characteristics, agricultural practices, harvest and post-harvest handling of the fruit, milling techniques, oil handling and storage practices, and the unique set of characteristics imparted to a crop through geology, soil, climate, elevation, aspect and geographical location, known collectively as terroir. For those of us tasked with helping to bring Nan’s vision to fruition, it became clear early on that for that vision to be realized, it would be necessary to recognize and nurture the concept of highest qualitythroughout all activities at McEvoy Ranch.So it is that terroirprovides an appropriate starting point for any discussion of land management practices on the Ranch......... It is in the symbiotic interplay between authentic regional agriculture and the environment that the highest expressions of terroir have historically been achieved.Thus the recognition that the finest wines, or the finest olive oils, come not from great commercial properties, but from the small cellars and orchards of a few independent souls whose relationship with place, practice and product transcends the mere commercial or utilitarian, finding its expression instead in the quest for perfection and relationship to place.

While terroir was a simple artifact of agricultural life in the days when farms were, of necessity, managed as closed systems, today this kind of management is rare, particularly in the U.S.Contemporary conventional agriculture depends on off-farm inputs, including pesticides and fertilizers, many derived from petroleum.Under such agroindustrial conditions, the living soil itself is reduced to a mere structural medium for support of the plant; the infinite complexity of the relations between living root and living soil is ignored in favor of a simplistic nutritional model that denies the ecology of life below the soil surface.

Not surprisingly, interest in “closed system” farming is growing as issues of food quality and environmental quality begin to be linked in the minds of producers and consumers alike with the survival of the human species.Preservation of the ecological integrity of the farm landscape, and the integration of the farm within that landscape, are thus imperatives, not only for the sake of agricultural sustainability, nor only to allow the full expression of terroir through the highest quality farm products, but because the failure to use agriculture as a means to enhance the ecological function of the landscapes we farm is an error in which we can no longer afford to indulge. At McEvoy Ranch, recognition of the relationship between ecologically sound agriculture and the expression of terroir has dictated a number of management decisions, from soil management approaches, to cover crop choices and windbreak design.The Ranch has implemented a variety of conservation strategies to make the most of the natural fertility and water holding capacity of the Ranch soils, while working to maximize the sequestration of atmospheric carbon dioxide as plant biomass and soil organic matter.The magnesium-rich clays of McEvoy Ranch have provided an enormous challenge as we have sought ways to work with those soils without compromising their structural integrity or reducing their native fertility.To this end we’ve developed orchard preparation techniques, including a commitment to no tillage, that maintain natural soil strata and resident vegetation to the greatest degree possible.At the same time, we’ve implemented an intensive soil building program, employing native and non-native cover crops, composting of olive mill wastes and farm landscaping debris, chipping and broadcasting of orchard prunings, and intensively managed sheep grazing, among other strategies. To address the challenges, and partake of the advantages, presented by our particular circumstances, we’ve adopted a Ranch-watershed perspective in our management approach.We’ve established a native tree planting program, growing oaks and other native trees for sensitive areas, some historically cleared for pasture.We’re also in the process of planting stream and gully areas to trees and shrubs to stabilize banks, prevent down-cutting, and stabilize upslope areas.We’ve planted over 1,000 willows and several thousand native trees and shrubs over the years, and will continue to plant in the years ahead. We are fortunate that there are good stands of native perennial bunchgrasses on much of the Ranch. The bunchgrasses protect the soil year ‘round, tend to have a much greater root volume than annual grasses and thus a greater capacity to both build and hold the soil.The native bunchgrasses also provide essential forage and habitat for a host of native insects, birds and native herbivores. We’ve constructed dozens of bluebird and bat houses, and barn owls have begun to nest in boxes dotted throughout the woodlands adjacent to the orchards.And each spring hundreds of insectivorous cliff swallows make their home on the Ranch silo. While we’re working on ways to hold and build the Ranch soils, we’re also thinking about ways to hold as much water in those soils as we can, so that come our annual dry season we’ve got a good reserve for the olive trees to draw from, relieving at least some of the need for irrigation.To the extent that we can hold our winter rains longer in the Ranch upland areas, and release that water slowly over a longer season, we can also keep the Ranch springs flowing over a longer period of time. In the pursuit of Nan’s goal,“…to produce the highest quality olive oil,” we have come to embrace the concept of terroirand its relationship to the ecology of McEvoy Ranch.By managing the Ranch as integral to the surrounding landscape, we work toward developing an authentically sustainable agricultural ecosystem, gradually reducing the need for off-farm inputs and supplemental irrigation, and fostering the natural ecosystem processes that ultimately support our agricultural efforts.We thus allow terroir to emerge organically from a vital soil, rise through a healthy tree to perfect fruit, and find its full expression in what we think you will agree is one of the finest olive oils in the world. Enjoy.