It is no secret that most Norwegians who live in Spain are pensioners who reside on the sunny Spanish coast. Which is why I admit to getting excited when I meet some of my fellow countrymen who are a tad younger, do something a bit different and who have hung their straw hats in somewhat remoter regions.
One such couple are the Norwegians Rebecca Hermansen and Raymond Bakken. Not only are they ultra-cool, hospitable and still on the right side of 50, but they also run, from what I have been able to discover, Spain’s only Norwegian organic olive farm!
Welcome to Finca La Colina
Thank goodness for Google Earth, I think as my husband and I pass the town of Álora and continue up and down on increasingly narrow country roads. To be sure we are on the right track, as we stop at a farm where a pack of rat-faced mutts spill out of every crack in the combined house and barn. The farmer nods and says “Por sí! – Absolutely! Finca La Colina is just at the other side of the valley”. And sure enough, after another steep incline and driving across a nearly dried up creek, we arrive at our destination halfway up the next hill, or colina as it is called in Spanish.
If there is any doubt that we have come to the right place, the smiling hosts appear in home-knitted Norwegian sweaters. She – fair and fresh-faced like a real Norway-ad, and him with a beard that could have given him a supporting role in the TV Series ‘The Vikings’ without having to audition. We recognize them and their wagging tailed dog Gimli from the hand-drawn labels on their Extra Virgin Olive Oil – Made with Love in Spain. Reading the description on the can, one immediately realizes that the couple do not take themselves too seriously: This oil is made bare-chested with the cap on backwards and a brew in one hand. The oil is perfectly suited for salads, frying and baking, but can also be used to attract old Casanovas and ageing ladies in leopard-skin tights.
A unique pair
“It took us over a year to find the place” smiles Raymond and says it all started when they rented a car in Italy which they had to return in Spain. They looked for their dream home in Italy, France and Portugal, before they finally arrived in Southern Spain just over 8 years ago. “This is where we have both lived the longest since we left our childhood homes” continues Raymond, who together with Rebecca now manages an 85.000 square-meter property with 1200 olive trees and two guest houses.
After giving us a tour of the lovely surroundings, we settle on their terrace to get better acquainted while an eagle flies in circles above us. Yes, this is certainly peace and quiet.
REBECCA – Green-fingered guesthouse hostess
Rebecca is from the town of Holmestrand in the Oslo fjord but moved to the capital to study. “I have always moved about a lot, but Oslo was sort of big enough for me as someone who came from little Holmestrand”. After several years with various employers, she met Raymond “He had a shorter beard at that point, but I love bearded men. It is so manly!”. She quit her job and left for Brazil with Raymond, and here they are now running an olive farm and guesthouse in rural Andalucía.
Rebecca: “When we got here, we had to invent something for me to do, since Raymond wasn’t ready to have a Trophy Wife at merely 35 years of age. So, I started the rental business. We have two guest houses, Casa Tranquila and Casita Iberica. Our season is usually from March to October, though people are welcome at other times and we can warm up the pool all year round. We focus on peace and quiet, so we do not allow children under 12, unless the same family books both houses. Through the guest houses, we have met fantastic people from all over the world. We have had visitors from New Zealand, Korea and Saudi Arabia. The latter were simply marvellous and even cooked for us! Some of the guests come back, even a couple from Canada. They wanted to get more of our olive oil, but shipping it over there was so expensive that they rather decided to return to our guest house for another holiday instead”.
RAYMOND – Olive-growing IT-guy
Raymond, who grew up outside of Oslo, wanted to become a pro cross-country skier. He did well, but not well enough to get on the national team, so he studied IT instead. Between jobs and partnerships in IT companies, he travelled the world. The adventurer is still alive and kicking, and his skies are still in the shed, so he can travel up to the Sierra Nevada for some Telemark skiing when time permits.
Raymond: “I have always been a doer. I sold an IT company that a pal of mine and I ran right before buying this farm. Then I helped found another IT business called MAKE, which specializes in legitimate email marketing. We comprise of five Norwegian owners and 90% of our clients are from Norway. To work remotely is no problem. I usually go north for meetings 4-5 times a year, but due to the pandemic, I have not been back for a year and a half and nevertheless everything has run smoothly”.
Why and how did you start to grow olives?
Rebecca: “The trees were standing there, so the olives kind of chose themselves. It is a food source that we didn’t want to waste, so we had to do something with them. The farm was not managed the way we liked before we took it over. A lot of pesticides had been used and the soil was rock hard. This year is in fact the first since we got here that we see earthworms. When I saw the first one, I yelled “Raymond, there is life in the soil! We have worms!”. Now I find them even when I weed the driveway! We couldn’t be happier”.
Raymond: “The first year we harvested only about 1200 kgs of olives, which is nothing for all the trees we have here. It was just enough for our own consumption. We also gave some to friends who gave us good feedback about the oil. Our neighbours also helped us, even though we spoke hardly any Spanish. Initially, I followed their advice, but then I began to read more about olive farming. We quickly realized that the best olive oils are made without pesticides and herbicides and without rototilling the soil. The farm had no topsoil at all, because it had been continually ploughed and then the rain washed the soil away. We took the land completely back to scratch and started organic farming, even though it has taken us a long time to get it going. Most people around here have smaller farms and full time jobs on the side. I totally get that for them it is easy to spray and be done with it. Many local farmers still run their farms the way they did when they got their first tractor and began modernizing. They are quite far behind the times when it comes to the latest farming technology and alternative methods, which is unfortunate, although thankfully some farms around here are now converting to organic agriculture”.
How do you run the farm?
Raymond: “We have gone from producing 120 litres of oil in the beginning to 2.500 litres now. During the harvest we pick 800 – 1500 kilos per day with 5 – 6 pickers. There is our helper Juan who works 60 % at the farm, me and 3 other guys. We use nets under the trees, a shaker, and traditional wooden sticks. From this fall on, we will use a gentler new type of shaker instead of hitting the trees. During our first year we visited all the mills in the area. The closest one is only 20 minutes away, but we would rather travel more than an hour to an organic mill – the small family-run Molino del Hortelanos in Casabermeja. We are one of the few producers who go every day during the harvest and have a set time reserved every evening for milling. We pick from 08.00 to 15.00, grab a quick bite and then drive to the mill, so there are just a few hours from picking to pressing the olives. This way we get the best quality. We add nothing to our oils, though we filter it, so it has a longer shelf-life and looks better. Our products are cold-pressed organic extra virgin olive oils from either the milder Manzanilla or the stronger-tasting Hojiblanca olive varieties”.
No former farming experience
Neither Rebecca nor Raymond had a background in agriculture. Although they were rather ‘green’ when they got here, they must have green fingers, as Rebecca’s garden looks absolutely stunning, with huge lavender bushes, herbs, cacti, succulents and other southern flowers and plants. In addition, they have citrus trees, wine grapes and a generous vegetable garden. They tried growing avocado and mango trees, but neither of these seemed to like the northern breeze that blows through the valley.
How is everyday life on the farm?
Rebecca: “Raymond gets up first and then I make breakfast and coffee, which I bring to his office 3 meters away from the kitchen. I manage the guests and the guest houses. In addition, I do all our shopping and cleaning. Usually, I go to Álora to shop and get our mail. Otherwise, the closest village is Valle de Abdalajís (three valleys away), where there is a small supermarket, a butcher and a fishmonger open in the mornings. We are now seeing more and more tourism around here. The Caminito del Rey has been a great help for the entire area, and also for our own guest houses”.
Raymond: “I work full time by Norwegian standards, which is from 08.00 to 17.00, on top of which I have the farming. Except during harvest, Juan is our only help, so I easily spend another 3-4 hours working with the olive trees before dinner. Some friends of ours have just moved back to the UK, so we will take over the running of their organic farm as well, which means another 450 trees”.
Tell us about olive farming throughout the year. What is the toughest and what is the most rewarding part of the job?
Raymond: “We harvest between September and October, which is very early. This gives us much less oil, but the quality of the product is far superior. It has more antioxidants and polyphenols because we pick our fruit when it is green. In addition, there is the cutting and pruning of the trees, cutting grass, fertilizing twice a year and organic spraying of the smaller trees every other month. We have never watered our big trees but give some water to the smaller ones a couple of times during the hottest months of the year. Recently we built a water reservoir, so we can water a little when the trees flower in the spring. One should never provide too much water. For one thing, it is a very limited resource here, and secondly if you water too much, the trees won’t grow without it. The toughest part of the job is picking and then dragging the nets full of olives into the hanger to drive them to the mill. And the greatest joy is the ability to produce food. I have never worked with food before, so for me, that is the best part, since everybody must eat.”
Certified organic agriculture
Finca La Colina is an organic farm. To be certified organic, no pesticides or chemicals can have been used on the farm for a minimum of four years. After this point, tests are taken of the soil and the trees. Everything that is done on the farm has to be reported and logged with dates, types and amounts, for example what is used as fertilizer and when. The manure that they use comes from the goat farm that we stopped at across the valley. “They give us the manure for free (free shit!), but then they also get rid of it,” grins Raymond. Organic production takes much longer than ordinary agriculture. In contrast to conventional mass production where trees might be planted barely a meter apart and some are cut down after 10 years, Finca La Colina plants their trees 7 meters apart and the trees are not used for oil production during their first decade. On the other hand, they will then produce fruit for a century or more.
What are your future plans?
Rebecca: “We would like to experiment more with wine. We have planted 400 vines and hope to get the first wine grapes this fall. During the first few years we cut off the fruit before they developed and left them on the ground as fertilizer, so that the plants would concentrate their energy on developing their roots. We are allowed to plant 1000 square meters of grapes for our own consumption. Every household here can produce the equivalent of 365 bottles of wine a year for home-consumption, so you can have a bottle on the table every day. To produce wine for sale is much more complicated. Some friends had to wait 8 years for their commercial permit, so we will stick to our olives”.
Raymond: “The plan is to build up the olive farm, so we have a bit of extra income when we retire. Maybe we also will be able to retire a bit sooner? Last year was our best production year ever, but a total of 2500 litres of oil is nothing for a Spanish olive farm. Our product is small and exclusive, so we will have to expand for it to be something we can live off. We have priced our oil at the same level as more exclusive Spanish oils. When people around here hear that we sell our oil in Norway for 28€ for a ½ litre can they are shocked, but this past year was in fact the first time our business didn’t end up in the red. In the longer term, we would like to participate in competitions and possibly do some olive oil tastings here at the finca. We have taken some courses in oil tasting but are by no means experts yet. Our oil gets sent to be analysed to ensure that we follow all the rules and regulations. The test results also describe the taste and characteristics of our oil. However, the most important feedback we get is from people who buy the oil. So far, they have given us exclusively positive feedback. It must mean we are doing something right!”.
So, who says Norwegians cannot be olive farmers! Perhaps next time you are looking for a present, instead of wine or flowers why not try olive oil, where the joy lasts much longer?
Finca La Colinas organic olive oil is sold at fincalacolina.es and can be shipped anywhere in the world. You can also contact Raymond and Rebecca directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. The guesthouses are found on airbnb and are linked on fincalacolina.es
The article originally appeared in Norwegian in Det Norske Magasinet in April 2021.