Flowers and fine olive oil in California’s Central Valley
Mike and Diane Madison sell 20,000 bunches of cut flowers a year through direct market and retail. They also grow clementines and high quality olives for oil. An innovative member arrangement—picking olives in exchange for oil—allows them to avoid the headaches and anxieties of being employers.

By Don Lotter

November 23, 2004: Mike and Diane Madison's flowers are always one of the most colorful displays at the Davis Farmer's Market. Today Yolo Bulb, their business name, has bouquets of ornamental sunflower, gerbera, crinum, and tuberose. It’s obvious that the Madison’s have loyal customers. They begin arriving at a quarter to eight while the market is still setting up, and there is a steady stream throughout the morning, many who stay and chat. Mike and Diane have two daughters, Lindsay 17, and Maia, 11, and today Maia works at the booth with Diane.

The Madisons have been farming since 1986 on 43 acres of land on Putah Creek, between Davis and Winters California, in the western part of the Central Valley, 80 miles north of San Francisco, just a few miles east of where the valley meets the coast foothills. The summers here are hot and dry, the winters colder than the coast, and the north wind blows hard in the spring.

The Madisons started out in the '80s going into wholesale production of cut flowers, but have shifted to mostly direct marketing as well as diversified to include olives for oil and Clementine oranges. Mike, like myself, is the son of a retired University of California professor of horticulture, one of the top turfgrass specialists in the US. The senior Madison had done some flower growing, which is where Mike learned the vocation. Mike's sister Deborah wrote the well-known "Greens Cookbook". Mike, himself a Ph.D. in tropical ecology, is also an author and has just had a book published about the landscape of the Sacramento Valley, "Walking the Flatlands" (Heyday Books). Diane, who has a degree in design, has some farming background from growing up in Florida where her grandparents owned a truck crop farm.

The Madisons saw a local niche for direct marketing of flowers. "Organic farmers' specialty is vegetables and fruits, and they would grow flowers on the side, but (at least in this locale) they aren't flower professionals," says Mike, who then filled the local direct market niche for professionally produced cut flowers.

The six acres and 200 varieties of plants for flower bouquets currently account for nearly three quarters of the farm's income, but that will be reduced to half as the ten acres of olives and one acre of Clementine oranges mature. The Madisons design their planting to spread out their labor with one bed here, a half bed there, so that bouquets can be put together from January to November. Starting with daphne, anemone, and flowering apricot in January, they end with gerbera, sunflower, tuberose, and things like hibiscus in fruit in November. The big months when most of the money for the year is made are April through June when peony, tulip, ranunculus, and iris bloom. They like perennials wherever possible because once established, they are less work. They average 20,000 bunches a year.

Two thirds of the flowers are sold retail by the Madisons at the Davis Farmer's Market. The other third is sold to the local supermarkets Nugget and the Davis Food Co-op. Mike and Diane moved from wholesale to retail because the concentration of production for wholesaling necessitated having employees. Also, if a buyer reneged, they were stuck with having one day to sell their product. Cut flowers are probably the most perishable of farm products, having a one day window for salability.

Contrary to what I had heard about growing flowers, the Madisons have very few problems with insect pests and diseases. Perhaps the diversity of flower and ornamental varieties helps keep beneficial insects around, or perhaps it's the plethora of bats that live in the area. A neighbor farmer, Bob Borchard, also a Davis High alumnus, has about 2,000 bats housed around his farm, each one eating some 1,500 insects per night. The Madisons have bats in some of Bob's bat houses on their property.

Symphylans, a soil-dwelling arthropod that lives off of the organic matter in soils, have become a problem. They are a common pest in soils where organic matter levels have been built up. "It's interesting that, having built up these nice soils, that a whole different set of pest problems come in, like symphylans and vertabrates like gophers and voles," says Mike.

Diseases are not much of a problem either, mostly because of the dry Central Valley environment. "The coastal flower growers, where a lot of the industry is located, have a much bigger disease problem because of the humidity," says Mike, "it's not well known that the Valley is good for flower growing."

The biggest pests on the farm are the varmints - voles, gophers, wild turkey and quail. The Putah Creek riparian area that borders the farm is a mixed blessing because it holds both beneficials like carabid beetles and lacewings, as well as the animals that raid the farm. Mike sets out hundreds of vole and gopher traps every year in the battle. "I'd like to do more with owl houses," says Mike when I refer to other farmers' who use the owl housing as part of their varmint control.

One year Mike planted a cover crop mix in the young olive orchard and got a nice big stand. "When I cut it down, the voles went for the bark on the young olives and I lost quite a few trees. I had to put protective strips on all of them," says Mike.

The Madison’s olives and Clementines are managed organically but not the flowers. Mike will certify the orchards when they come into full production. As for the flowers, there just isn't enough demand for organic, according to Mike, plus the paperwork of certifying nearly 200 species was too much of a headache. Most of the flowers are managed using organic methods, but the particular needs of some of the flowers might necessitate a conventional fertilizer application when applying compost would be difficult.

Some of the flowers need particular types of management. The peonies don't get enough cold in the winters here to break dormancy, so Mike uses drought stress at the end of summer and through fall to break rest. Another flower, alstroemeria, responds to having its stubble burned.

Soil fertility in the flower beds is maintained mostly with composts bought from a company that composts San Francisco restaurant waste. For fall planted flowers Mike will plant Sudan grass in the spring and then till it in mid-summer. He also likes rice hulls as an amendment, which are fairly easy to get in this rice growing valley.

In the orchards, Mike uses a low-growing sub-clover mix that grows well in the cool, wet winters and re-seeds well. Clementines are sensitive to the inland northern California frosts, so having the soil partially exposed and re-radiating absorbed heat at night is important, thus the low-growing cover crop. Thick, tall cover crops don't allow the soil to absorb the sun’s heat and re-radiate it at night nearly as well. Clementines however, need a fair amount of nitrogen, so it's a tricky balance to get enough nitrogen from the cover crops without denying solar radiation to the soil and making them prone to frosts, according to Mike.

The soils here in the west edge of the Central Valley can be fairly high in magnesium and pH. Mike buys gypsum (CaSO4) which both lowers the pH and balances the Ca/Mg ratio, an important ratio for soil health.

Irrigation in the orchards is by sub-surface drip and in the annuals surface drip. Sub-surface drip emitters are buried 12 to 15 inches deep, so the soil surface stays dry all summer, which keeps the weed seeds from germinating in the rainless summers here. The olives take less water, and like wine grapes, give a better product if they are a little water stressed. Clementines need more water.

"This valley has deep alluvial soils, 300 feet deep in this area" says Mike, "so it makes sense to plant crops whose roots can go deep and take advantage of that depth, like trees." Mike relates how olive tree roots were found 150 feet from the nearest tree when some work was done near their land. Oak roots were found 80 feet down when they worked on a well.

The Clementine orange is a type of mandarin orange, a tangerine, that has become more popular than the Satsuma orange. It is seedless unless you plant some other types of citrus nearby, and has a more tangy taste than the satsuma. The Clementines ripen in December and January, which compliments the fall olive harvest and the spring through fall flower seasons.

Mike has planted a half-dozen varieties of olives for high quality oil production - Koroneiki, Frantoio, Leccino, Moraiolo, Taggiasca, Pendolino, and Itrana - all varieties that are well-known in their respective Mediterranean countries. "This is essentially a varietal trial, as there's no history of growing these varieties here. California has traditionally grown olives only for the canning industry," says Mike. Trees of the old Spanish all-purpose olive varieties Manzanilla and Mission line the driveway going into the Madison farm, just as they line roads all over the county.

The olive fruit fly, the Mediterranean's worst pest of olive, recently arrived in California. Fortunately, an effective organically compliant pesticide, a spinosad, arrived on the market at about the same time. GF-120® (Dow) is a fruit fly bait with the microbially-derived natural insecticide spinosad, that has been very effective on the olive fruit fly. Mike also uses traps with a fruit fly attractant.

The market for good quality “artisanal” olive oil has been growing and should grow even more when consumers realize what they are getting when they buy the cheap $5 a liter olive oil, even extra virgin oil that has been getting so cheap. "Extra virgin simply means that the olive oil has less than 1% free fatty acids," says Mike, "they can start with all sorts of stuff like rancid olives and they use chemicals and high temperatures to take the free fatty acids out, but they also take all the taste out too. Then they might add a few percent good olive oil for some flavor."

"We like to pick most of our olives a little bit green," says Mike, "green olives give the complex flavors, and kind of like tannins in wine, they need to be aged for a few months." Mature olives give a different olive oil that is more buttery and can be eaten right away.

Another factor in olive oil quality and character is the type of pressing. The Madisons have been taking their olives to two presses, one a traditional stone press, the other a modern type called a horizontal decanter centrifuge. Each will give a distinctly different oil from the same batch of olives. The stone-pressed oil generally can be eaten right away, while the centrifuged oil needs aging. The Madisons plan to buy their own olive oil press in a year or two.

Mike has developed an innovative way of harvesting the olives. Olives are a labor-intensive crop to harvest and the Madisons, as with their flower production, just don't want to deal with the headaches of having employees and all of the paperwork and expenses they entail, especially in California. So Mike is forming a cooperative in which members come to the farm on designated harvest days to pick olives for a share of the olive oil production. The cooperative will carry liability insurance for the cooperative members, eliminating a lot of the potential legal headaches. Mike will keep the trees pruned low so that only minimal ladder work is needed.

In previous years Mike found that some people will pick ten times more olives than others in course of a day. So he is going with the traditional method of keeping track of what a person harvests and giving them an according amount of olive oil. By my calculation I might earn three liters of high quality olive oil for a day of picking, guessing that I can pick half of the 400 pounds that Mike picks in a day. High quality olive oil runs $20-$50 a liter, so it sounds good to me. Mike keeps a share of the oil that keeps him in business.

Designated harvest days are necessary since the minimum amount of olives needed for pressing at a commercial press is one ton and they need to be pressed the same day they are picked. The harvest days are a social event as well, with a big meal in the middle of the day. Members can pick on the days when their preferred varieties are being harvested, and can have Mike blend their oil from different varieties. "The members also end up buying my oil, so my benefit is not limited to the labor I get from them" says Mike.

A year's worth of high quality, local, organic olive oil for a couple of days of picking sounds like something I would like to do. Olive oil is right up there with wine, cheese, and chocolate in the gustatory arena. With flowers as part of the mix, I see lots of potential in this innovative farmer-food aficionado arrangement.