The company’s first planting opportunity came when Don Nelson (yes, the famed basketball coach) asked Jamie and Josh to partner with him on installing an orchard at his Kula property.
“‘Vertical’ is my response when people ask me about the learning curve,” says Jamie. “We made every mistake you could think of. Our seedlings were too small, the terrain too steep, the trees planted too closely together, and the soil was Kula loam — what we refer to as ‘moon dust’ for its characteristic of repelling water. Rose beetles and whiteflies threatened to decimate the entire orchard, not to mention deer and pigs that found the trees an attractive meal.”
And not to mention hurricanes. Olives trees setfruit right during Hawai‘i’s hurricane season. A big storm could wipe out an entire orchard. Somehow, the trees on Don Nelson’s property beat the odds, and yielded Maui Olive Company’s first harvest.
Jamie, Josh and Sam (Jamie’s younger son) soon found themselves installing orchards for other Maui folks interested in olives. Bruce Golino, a founding member of the California Olive Oil Council, and the man responsible for helping to establish standards defining extra virgin olive oil, became Maui Olive Company’s advisor. Golino came to Maui on several occasions to help identify planting sites, test soil and recommend the best “low chill” trees for our environment. Olives need a chill factor of fifty degrees or lower for a cumulative 100 hours.
“You can grow beautiful olive trees in Hawai‘i at any elevation,” Golino advised, “but to get fruit, the trees need cold.” On Maui, the ideal microclimate lies at an elevation of 2,000 to 4,000 feet, specifically Olinda, Kula and Kēōkea.
In 2014, we returned to Italy, and spent countless hours touring orchards and talking with farmers. Jamie studied pruning techniques, milling options, and organic farming styles. Every orchard had a new secret to reveal. And every tree seemed to speak to him. “I can do this,” Jamie told me. “I can grow olives.”
Later that year, Jamie leased ten acres of Kula farmland at 3,800-foot elevation and began planting Maui Olive Company’s largest orchard. The site’s terraced grounds allow for neat, well-spaced rows and a flat surface for safe harvesting. “The verdict is still out on how much fruit and which varieties do best at what elevation,” Jamie says, “but we have had really nice success with the varieties we’ve planted here: Koroneiki, Arbequina, Arbosana, Frantoio and Pendolino.”
It costs about $10,000 per acre to set up an olive orchard in Hawai’i, three times what it costs on the mainland. That includes clearing the land, purchasing the slips of California-grown saplings, and setting up a drip irrigation system. Maintenance costs about $3,000 per acre per year, but olive trees are drought-, disease-, and fire-resistant. Because they place little demand on precious resources, they’re an attractive long-term investment.