A five-storey, 600,000 cubic feet industrial space is transformed for this walkthrough exhibit.
At first glance, the sunny, south-facing, gentle slope planted with rows of short trees could be mistaken for any stone fruit orchard or vineyard on the island, but this is The Olive Farm, Canada’s first large-scale olive grove. Set in Salt Spring Island’s Fulford Valley, the farm is the passion project of George and Sheri Braun. The largest and most populated of the southern Gulf Islands between B.C.’s mainland and Vancouver Island, Salt Spring has long been known for its vigorous local food scene. The Brauns moved to the island from Kelowna after years spent searching for a piece of land with the right conditions to grow olive trees—one with the right micro-terroir; warm, with good drainage and plenty of sun exposure. In 2012, the couple transplanted 1,000 seedlings imported from California on seven of their 72 scenic acres.
The farm quickly bore fruit—two years sooner than they expected. The olive trees bloom in June, with clusters of off-white flowers hinting at the fruit that will follow. Harvest and pressing take place in November, giving the olives ample time to soak in the sun’s rays before being hand-picked.
In December 2016, the couple enlisted friends and family to help with the inaugural harvest. The first 1,000 pounds of olives were pressed into 32 litres of pure, emerald green, 100-per-cent Canadian olive oil—the first of its kind.
“The olive trees bloom in June, with clusters of off-white flowers hinting at the fruit that will follow.”
“Demand has been overwhelming,” Sheri says of the oil they describe as having a wonderfully buttery, clean, fruity taste. An initial batch of 160 (200 mL) bottles were quickly snapped up by locals and chefs, one of whom raved that it reminded him of the olive oil of his childhood in Northern Italy. “We haven’t been able to keep up with demand.”
Three or four years from now, the couple hope to produce 300 to 400 litres of oil in a season—around 2,000 bottles—enough to go a little further.
But, this burgeoning olive oil business has seen its share of struggles. Early 2017 brought the harshest winter conditions Salt Spring had experienced in 30 years, a situation compounded in November of the same year when frost damaged much of the fruit just before harvest time.
Still, the Brauns remain optimistic. “We’re undeterred!” says Sheri about the challenges they face bringing their Canadian olive oil to market. She says all the trees survived, and, with plenty of new growth, they appear to be making a full recovery.
With plenty of requests to visit the farm, the Brauns plan to introduce guided tours and are tossing around the idea of adding a small café and gift shop. But, for now, they are busy keeping up with the demand for their olive oil—in addition to the initial 1,000 trees, there are 1,500 more that are still a few years from maturity, a handful of experimental varieties growing, and plans to plant even more.
In the meantime, George and Sheri grow berries and greens, squash, tomatoes, herbs, garlic and even melons, as they slowly pioneer a whole new industry.
Where to eat on Salt spring Island
With more than three dozen eateries on Salt Spring Island, there are stops for every appetite. Here are a few to seek out.
In a building constructed in the 1920s, and with a plum tree growing in the middle of the patio, the Treehouse Cafe serves from-scratch breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Since 1994, Heather Campbell—known locally as “The Bread Lady”—has baked artisan loaves in a wood-fired oven. Visit the bakery on the south side of the island near Ruckle Provincial Park or at the Saturday Market in Ganges.
El Loco Taco
Food-truck fans will love the fresh tacos and burritos served from the bright-red El Loco Taco trailer. They make for perfect summer eating at the surrounding picnic tables. Watch for a bricks-and-mortar restaurant opening soon.
[This story appears in the June 2018 issue of WestJet Magazine]