The Reluctant Olive Farmer

Olive farming? In Puglia? Us? Before we moved south to the region of Puglia on the stiletto heel of Italy, farming of any description was the furthest thing from our minds. We had planned to spend our retirement lounging in the sun beside our pool sipping chilled rosato and blogging about it. So what happened?

As most of my readers are aware, I got married just last July to Tom Weber (The Palladian Traveler). Tom, a confirmed city slicker, had been living in the Veneto for many years and we met just eight months after I moved there from Ireland. It was our blogs that brought us together and we first laid eyes on one another on a visit to Villa Pojana, one of Palladio’s early architectural treasures. The rest is history – or is it?

Wanting a brand new beginning to our new life together, we decided to move to Puglia, the largest olive growing area in Italy. This was not an easy decision as we loved the Euganean Hills where we had made many wonderful friends, but Tom was not keen to live in an apartment any more, and craved some peace and quiet. However, we decided that if the right property became available in either the hills or in Puglia we would consider our options.

Our property hunt began in September 2015. Nothing suitable appeared to be available in the Euganean Hills, but on our second visit to Puglia in January 2016, we saw and fell in love with a property just outside Ostuni, The White City, in the Valle d’Itria.

The Valle d’Itria is a tranquil spot, full of pretty olive groves and sprinkled with trulli – those cone-shaped houses typical of the area – with narrow roads and rough stone walls; a little like Connemara with better weather.

The city of Ostuni itself, (population 32,000) has everything one could possibly need to survive comfortably on a day to day basis: supermarkets; a hospital; good shops; top class restaurants, a lively social scene and a stunning centro storico (historic centre) full of winding, cobbled streets.

In the early stages of being built, our new home was on a large two acre site on top of a hill with views of Ostuni, Cisternino and Ceglie Messapica on the surrounding horizon. A breezy spot, this plot of rock-strewn land was virtually bare of any vegetation. A few lonely trees, bent by the wind and neglected for years, were the only signs of life to be seen. The plot had no water of its own either, but we were assured that many of the houses in the area relied solely on this vital commodity being brought in by truck and that a large 30,000 litre cistern would be part of our building contract.

Being happy with our decision to buy this potentially wonderful piece of real-estate in Puglia we rushed to sign on the dotted line and Villa Allegra was born. Having been an interior designer for many years, I was put in charge of ensuring that the house was completed to our satisfaction.

We duly paid our deposit and I spent the next eight months flying between Treviso and Brindisi on Ryanair in order to keep an eye on developments with the builder and all the subcontractors. Not an easy task I can assure you, as none of them spoke any English whatsoever and my Italian is pretty dodgy, but I must admit my language skills progressed apace with our new home over that time period.

We began our life in Puglia in October 2016 and our first water delivery arrived.

Our vision? Well you might ask! We were as lost as the Babes in the Wood, having no clue how to manage a two acre plot of bare land in the depths of the Pugliese countryside. Having been assured by the builder and estate agent that our cistern was perfectly adequate, we began to plan our garden. A few olive trees? Some fruit trees? It all seemed so simple. We decided to visit the local garden centre for advice.

The upshot was a suggestion that we plant 80 baby olive trees, which was about 70 more than we had envisaged and much tinier too. Then we were informed (horrors!) that, before that could happen, we needed to get rid of all the rocks as the land was not viable otherwise.

At great cost, we hired an enormous tractor with pulverising equipment on the back, driven by a young lad, the son of the owner, who spent a week moving slowly up and down our two acre plot creating a dust cloud that could well have been visible from outer space.

The result was a virtually rock-free piece of land that looked like the face of the moon and the dustiest house imaginable.

Everywhere we went, on our long exploratory walks along the local narrow lanes, Tom peered into olive groves and bemoaned the fact that Villa Allegra was on such barren land with ne’er an olive tree in sight, though our next-door neighbours’ houses were virtually invisible above the tops of theirs.

Planting began with 120 laurel bushes to mark out a garden close to the house, which would be visually separated from our baby olive plantation. 25 oleander were strategically planted close to the laurel hedge to add some colour and we then took delivery of 55 olive trees.

Our builder had, in lieu of the promised landscaping, planted 25 babies, plus a further five of indeterminate age and health, one of which, it transpired, was dead on arrival.

Tom was out in all kinds of cold, wintry, blustery weather staking these little trees and the occasional expletive was to be heard ringing through the olive groves of the Valle d’Itria. In fact, I would say that the air around Tom was often as blue as our shutters, as he staked yet another wind-blown tree.

Happily, our olive trees, laurel and oleander weathered the brutally cold January weather we experienced. Airports and schools closed briefly while we endured some shocking blizzards, the likes of which we had not anticipated as part of the normally benign Pugliese climate.

As a farmer, it must be admitted, Tom is not a natural. In the hopes that he might be converted, I bought him a battery-powered weed strimmer for Christmas, which he has used twice so far, and persuaded him to purchase a pair of Hunter wellington boots. A wheelbarrow was added to his tool collection shortly afterwards; a feather-light, plastic, self-assembly one, which he is convinced looks effeminate.

We ended up with 84 olive trees, all of which would, apparently, be thirsty for irrigation as soon as the dry, summer weather arrived. It was suddenly, blindingly obvious that our natty little cistern was inadequate to the task in hand and completely under capacity for our needs. Taking our large pool into consideration and the fact that we wanted to plant lawn around the house, it began to seem like a huge joke.

Finally, the penny dropped and we knew that we needed to sink a well.  Yet more money needed to be spent and lots of it too. This required a permesso (permission) from the local authorities and when it was granted, we sank our pozzo (well) in February. After one week and a drilling operation that entailed digging to 342 metres – of which 70 metres were below sea level – we finally struck precious water.

We were then left to figure out what to do with the unexpected ‘gift’ of about half an acre of grey dust that the machinery had brought to the surface.

Olive trees planted, we progressed to one dozen fruit trees: apricot; cherry; almond; pear and loquat. We also planted two beautiful magnolia trees to provide some shade, a gorgeous mimosa, lavender on the driveway and a rosemary hedge around the pool.

Two huge terracotta pots are being prepared for two fuchsia coloured bougainvillea and ten geraniums.

Climbing roses have been ordered for around the entrance gate. Wild flowers have appeared in abundance on our ‘moonscape’ and our ragged posse of indigenous trees have blossomed. Next October we will roll out some lawn around the house and that, hopefully, should finish things off. Until, that is, the next unexpected obstacle rears its head.

Right now, Villa Allegra is ablaze with wild flowers and we are beginning to feel somewhat settled.

As regards farming these olives and fruit in a few years, we hope to engage with a local farmer to assist us in our endeavours. In the meantime, watch this space for further updates on the stresses and strains of being a reluctant olive farmer. Personally I think Tom deserves a medal!

Salute from Villa Allegra.

Orna O’Reilly

Ostuni, Italy

29 thoughts on “The Reluctant Olive Farmer

  1. Loved that, Orna! Really great over-view. Especially liked the idea that Tom feels his wheel-barrow is ‘effeminate’!

  2. Your garden experience was much like ours. We have 2 acres of land in the mountains. We have our own spring. Without that I doubt that we would have bought the place. We are in our 4th year of gardening and it seems the work never stops. However, the work is worth it. My last peonie had finally poked its head up. I now have more than 50 and some hadve already had flowers. We have 300 lavender, about 20 olives, figs, cherries, apples, pears, pomegranates, persimmon, quince and lots of wisteria. I can’t wait to see it all happen this summer. Yours will be fabulous too!

    • Sounds WONDERFUL Debra! Do you have help? I really don’t think Tom and I could possibly manage all this alone. But we’re (mostly) enjoying the experience and I’m looking forward to seeing how things will look next year.

      • We have help now, but I built most of the early garden beds myself and planted quite a lot of the plants. Filippo cuts the grass for us. We have several terraces down the side of a steep hill and I don’t want to do that. We now couldn’t manage without Filippo. He also does meet and greet for us when we have visitors and looks after everything when we go back to Australia for the Italian summer.

  3. It looks just beautiful and more so when all those lovely plants are established. We have a very tiny patch in Umbria and I have planted some lavender and also planted a Mimosa when we were there in March. I’m sure you will enjoy nurturing those olives.

    • Thanks Janet. We do live in a beautiful spot indeed and we’re beginning to come to terms with all this work that has to be done. Much more than we expected! But yes, keeping Tom quite fit!! 🙂

  4. Orna, I loved reading about your landscaping and farming in Otsuni. I’ve been following your blogs since you met Tom and it’s wonderful what you are building together. Thanks for the great photos! Last year I was in Puglia and really wanted to visit Otsuni but it wasn’t meant to happen. One day I will get there and maybe be able to see the olives growing on your trees.

    • Thank you Anna for the positive comments. It has been a truly interesting and challenging project. Do let us know if you make it to Ostuni. A glass of chilled rosato awaits. 🙂

    • Thanks Karen. You need to come and check it out! It seems quick I know, but it feels like ages when you’re waiting! But we’re definitely making progress now. 🙂

    • Thanks Gale. We’ve had more than a few frustrations to deal with, but we are looking forward to the day when we actually have the place to ourselves, worker-free……whenever that might be! Today they’re working on a carport and building a barbecue, so the cement mixer is rolling once more. 🙄

  5. The place looks fantastic Orna. True, the work never stops, but the results are wonderful to enjoy. You are both to be commended in what you have accomplished. And every farmer should have Wellies or boots of some kind, it’s a given 🙂

    • Thanks Rae. It all seems overwhelming at times to be honest. I think we will never finish completely – there is always so much to do. And Tom loves his Hunter wellies with thick socks to keep his toes warm in the cool weather. 🙂

    • That’s interesting as we cannot even begin to imagine what Villa Allegra will look like in a few years. I don’t know if we will be around to see it at its finest, but you never know! In the meantime, it is a huge learning curve for both of us. 🙂

    • Thanks for commenting and apologies for the tardy response…didn’t spot it until now. Yes, Veneto and Puglia: very different, but both equally wonderful in their own special ways. Love them both.

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