After long careers in high-pressure, high-tech jobs in Silicon Valley, Susan Larsen and Dianna Browning retired 11 years ago to what they feel is the quintessential California western lifestyle - their 170-acre Raven Hill Ranch tucked away in a small valley in Raymond.
Unlike most ranches in Raymond dotted with cattle, Raven Hill Ranch is also home to nearly 3,000 large and stately olive trees thought to be at least 150 to 175 years old.
Larsen and Browning bought the unnamed homestead in 1994 as a weekend getaway from their Silicon Valley jobs, and began the long process of restoring the orchard that had gone unattended for more than 100 years. They moved to the ranch full-time in 2005, although Larsen continued to telecommute until her retirement in 2010, when, as she said, the “olive oil adventure” began.
“Restoring the abandoned orchard and producing hand-crafted extra virgin olive oil was always our intent,” Larsen said.
It was like coming back to her roots for Browning, who was raised in Fresno and had family in the Raymond area.
Restoring the orchard was no easy task. Over many years of neglect, the orchard reverted to flourishing in a more natural wild state. Larsen and Browning spent days, weeks, months and years transforming a run-down, overgrown ranch into the highly manicured and beautiful one it is today.
“We wanted to try and restore the orchard so that we could define this place as it had once been - a farm,” Browning said. “Though we surprisingly have never been able to identify who planted these trees, it is still very important to us to honor their effort and to preserve the beauty of the place. We want to make sure that the extreme effort made by the 19th century immigrants to farm this place 150 years ago is not something that will be easily forgotten.
“With the very large olive trees dotting the hillsides, there is beauty here that is reminiscent of the Italian or Spanish countryside,” Browning added.
Each year in November, crews are hired to harvest the olives using bamboo poles and nets. The olives are milled the same day in the Central Valley, preserving all the deep richness and fresh flavor of the olives in the olive oil.
Olives are harvested from only a fraction of the trees in the vast orchard - enough to produce small batches, or about 200 cases a year. The remaining olives are left for the ravens and other native wildlife on the property.
“The annual harvest is very labor intensive, but the hand-crafted olive oil that is produced from the century-old trees is a wonderful and delectable reward for all the hard work,” Larsen said. “We don’t produce a lot of oil, but what we do produce truly preserves the heritage and history of this place, which is our intention going forward.”
The Raven Hill Ranch Olive Oil brand was established and earned California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) status in 2011. The olive oil from each yearly harvest is sent to a lab for a chemical analysis to ensure that it meets the ‘extra virgin’ standards set by the California Olive Oil Council, who also ensure strict standards for aroma, taste, and quality.
The story of Raven Hill Ranch began well over a century ago during the California Gold Rush era. Thousands of olive trees were planted on a humble homestead to provide lamp oil for the gold miners in the area and the many small Sierra Foothill towns that were just beginning to define the original California dream.
Enterprising immigrants, with the vision to grow a familiar commodity crop that they obviously knew so well, didn’t know then that their orchard would eventually become one of the oldest and perhaps the first large commercial olive orchard in California.
Although the identity of the original homesteaders of the ranch is unknown, Larsen and Browning believe that by the variety, the olive trees were planted by either Italian or Spanish immigrants.
Raymond has a rich history as the original rail head for stage coach exploration of Yosemite, and as the source of “Sierra White” granite which was mined, as it still is today, at the Raymond/Knowles Granite Quarry to rebuild San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. But over time, Raymond has become well-known as cattle country.
The majestic olive trees on Raven Hill Ranch were never really valued by the cattle ranchers according to Larsen and Browning, because they tended to take up valuable cattle grazing ground. In the early days, cattlemen often cut them down for firewood, but the olive trees, with their tenacious nature, would only grow back stronger.
Over the years, some were transplanted in many Central Valley towns for landscaping, but they soon fell out of favor when non-fruiting hybrids that didn’t produce olives became more popular in suburban settings.
Unlike many farms, ranches and crops that have suffered from the historic California drought, Larsen and Browning believe olive trees can survive worst-case droughts without irrigation, because they were planted when the water tables in California were much higher.
“Think of a time when there were no dams or water diversions during the 19th century, and realize that these trees have put their roots down much deeper than those found in today’s traditionally planted orchards,” explained Larsen. “They’re able to hold water for years to survive, just like those that grow wild on the hillsides in Spain, Italy and Greece.
“We love these trees because of their age and historic value,” Larsen continued. “Who wouldn’t want to live in a beautiful olive orchard, right?”
A place where time stands still
“In a world of such complexity, living out in the country the way we do makes us realize how lucky we are,” Larsen said. “Raymond is a place where time stands still - in a good way. Raymond is truly a live and let live kind of place where neighbors know their neighbors and we all support each other however we can. Raymond is a real solid community of kind and good people.”
The orchard on the property wasn’t the only thing that required some tender loving care. After deciding the original, 120-year-old homestead ranch house was beyond repair, it was torn down and replaced with a large modern barn to host harvest gatherings and small batch milling of olives into oil. The barn is surrounded by a beautiful, drought-tolerant cottage garden, with fruit trees, vegetable and herb gardens, and a small hennery.
With Mother Nature always in charge of annual fruit production, the trees are often challenged by fierce heat and drought. But with their stout trunks that are able to store up enough water to survive for years and years, and with their natural disease resistance, these old trees continue to withstand adversity, season after season.
“There’s an old saying, that you grow grapes for your children, and you grow olives for your grandchildren,” Browning said with a smile. “This is because in the old country, it took 40 years for an olive tree to begin heavily producing. We know now that olive trees can live to 3,000 years old and still produce, and are in their prime up to 175 years old. So these heritage trees have centuries to go, and we hope that they will be here for a long, long time.”
Raven Hill Ranch olive oil is available seasonally, on the ranch, by appointment only. To purchase olive oil, contact Browning and Larsen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Raven Hill Ranch olive oil will also be available for purchase at the upcoming 31st annual Raymond Day Parade in April, where 50% of the sales proceeds will be donated to the Raymond Museum.
Look for details on the Raven Hill Ranch Facebook page.