Elizabeth Liew, shown here on her organic olive farm in Tuscany, believes strongly in what Robyn O’Brien wrote in Rethink Health Care: ‘We pay the doctor to make us better when we should really be paying the farmer to keep us healthy.’
When their daughter Isabelle was two years old, Elizabeth and Elio decided to swap a vibrant, exciting life in London for a slower-paced one closer to nature. So in 1999, the Poggiagliolmis moved to Tuscany, Italy, to a new home in the hills of Maremma, about two hours’ drive from Elio’s hometown of Florence.
The region known affectionately as “Maremma Tuscany” is fast becoming popular as a holiday destination – it is near the coast, has exclusive beaches and is dotted with small family estates and farms.
“Our new home is an organic farm which came with 200 olive trees and two horses, and we added chickens, cats, dogs, rabbits and even turkeys, one at a time!” said Liew. “Then we bought the adjoining piece of land when it came up for sale, and added more olive trees and now have around 1,000 trees.”
The farm stretches over an area of 21ha – half of it natural woodland, and 1ha a vineyard.
In this region of moderate climes – winters that are not too harsh and summers that are not too dry – olive trees thrive. Olive trees have been around for millennia – 8,000 years, according to history. They are resilient against long periods of drought, and can survive frost, rain, and snow.
“Surprisingly, that is where organic farming becomes interesting. Olive trees are self-sustaining and need very little maintenance. In fact, they thrive when they are left alone – if the trees have been planted a fair distance from each other, with a lot of air circulation between them, they will be naturally free of pests and have no need for pesticides. Or fertilisers – not overcrowding ensures that each tree will have adequate nutrient uptake and do not have to compete with its neighbours.”
The Poggiagliolmis believe that the basis of organic farming is to understand Nature and work with it. “One of it is to respect the natural growing cycles and to not try to speed it up by applying fertilisers to the crop.”
The couple bring to their farm and olive oil production that same concern that troubled them as parents: they wanted the label on their bottle of olive oil to pass their own stringent tests. That means producing as pure an olive oil as Nature has intended.
Yet, there was never a conscious intention to go into farming. “We moved here when our daughter Isabelle (the artist behind the labels on their bottles of olive oil) was three, and it was time to register her for school.
“We had no previous farming experience; our experience is very much hands-on, on-the-fly. We learnt from the locals and we learnt fast!
“Hand-picking the olives was frustratingly slow and Elio fell back on his seismic knowledge to invent a machine – the Meteorite – to greatly shorten harvesting time.”
The Meteorite has many advantages over other olive harvesting machines – essentially devices that shake the tree to make the fruits fall – and has been described as being more sympathetic to the tree and less harmful to its root system.
“After many years of sharing our wonderful olive oil with our friends, and constantly hearing them tell us that they want to be able to buy it, we decided to take it to the stores. Stringent tests and checks from the appropriate governing bodies came to certify us organic – and we passed with flying colours!”
This is the life: Little Isabelle Poggiagliolmi’s mum and dad moved the family to the Italian countryside, much to her delight. This drawing she made of the family enjoying a picnic of bruschetta under the olive trees is used on the labels on bottles of the Poggiagliolmis’ premium organic olive oil.The Poggiagliolmi Extra Virgin Olive Oil - the Organic difference,