The whisper of the wild. It’s a hot, urgent feeling that wells up in your throat; that tugs at the heart and cannot be denied. It’s the primal urge that lures one away from comfortable circumstances and into the exhilarating unknown—into the dust and dirt of rural life.
“I was attracted to the prospect of doing something a little bit different,” Karen Tallent said of her 2010 move from bustling Southern California to rural Templeton.
The olive grower’s calm, graceful demeanor and stately Katharine Hepburn air belies her courageousness and grit. Tallent dreamed of long days spent outside in the sun with her dogs, planting seeds, and watching them grow. But she didn’t know a lick about farming. Why should that stop her?
Up until then, Tallent’s professional expertise centered on the defense electronics and consulting fields.
“Then, I put it all in the rearview mirror,” Tallent said with a laugh. Sitting in the farmer’s barn and olive bottling facility in rural Templeton, conversation has a tendency to echo high into the rafters adorned with pretty twinkle lights. It’s no wonder brides are attracted to the scenic property, known by Templeton locals and foodies as The Groves on 41.
“There’s a lot of difference between what I was doing and farming, but also not a lot of difference,” Tallent said of her big career switch. “There’s always a surprise in store. There’s nothing more satisfying than going out and seeing the health of the trees, to see how they’ve changed and grown. It’s easy to get lost in a day out there.”
Tallent’s sister, a North County resident, was actually the one to first spark “the crazy idea” to grow olives. At the time, there were about a dozen commercial growers in the area.
“I went out to the farms to talk to these olive growers and they were so passionate about what they did. It was a little contagious,” Tallent said. “I decided to dig in and learn a lot more about the industry, to immerse myself in every aspect.”
What Tallent learned was encouraging. Olives were (and are) experiencing a boom as one of the fastest growing specialty crops in California. Always thorough, Tallent enrolled in a few educational olive growing courses at UC Davis.
There she met a professor who taught her about the virtues of high density planting, which is ideal for mechanical harvesting. Tallent’s 18 acres of flat farmland off Highway 41 is now planted to 10 compact acres of about 4,000 olive trees: about 3,500 arbequina and 500 koroneiki.
“I asked my professor, ‘What are the three most difficult things about growing olives?’ He almost climbed through the phone at me,” Tallent said with a big smile. “He replied, ‘There’s nothing difficult about growing olives. They can grow out of rocks. But try actually selling the stuff!’”
That was the final enticement that lured Tallent in, hook, line, and sinker. She loves a good challenge, and that’s a very good thing. Olive growing—and olive oil production—is not for those seeking instant gratification. While the trees matured, Tallent worked with a few other local growers to source fruit and create olive oil under The Groves on 41 label.
“It took three years to get our first crop, in 2014,” Tallent said. “It was a bittersweet harvest.”
This is the part of the story that weighs heavy on Tallent’s heart. Her husband passed away just one month before the long-awaited fruit was pulled from the fields.
Still, she remained committed to the dream, picking herself up and throwing herself into the daily tasks of the farm, which has grown to encompass a vacation rental and wedding venue. Her daughter, hospitality professional Jennifer Tallent, began working for the family business in 2013. She now wears many hats, including media coordinator, wedding/event planner, and Groves on 41 saleswoman.
“Ever since I was a little girl, I always wanted to be part of a family business. Having the opportunity to come up here and to not just work for my mom, but to have a hand in it, and to call it my own, has been really special,” Jennifer said.
The mother-daughter team knows that it shouldn’t be hard to sell Groves on 41 olive oil. After all, it’s delicious. The hard part is getting the product into locals’ mouths. Once the premium olive oils are poured into tiny plastic cups and brought up to the nose, customers have a tendency to want to sip, slurp, and savor.
While some Old World European oils are grassy, cloudy, or extremely pungent (which are not bad things by any means), Groves on 41 offers up a decidedly approachable selection. The cold-pressed artisanal extra virgin olive oils are smooth, clear to the eye, buttery, and welcoming, ranging from the more neutral, nutty 2015 Spanish arbequina (a 2015 Napa Olive Oil Silver Award winner) to their peppery and lively Greek koreneiki to their Tuscan blend, which showcases a balanced mix of fruitiness, bitterness, and pungency.
These oils are sensible and good for a range of uses, like well-worn denim. However, that’s not to say they can’t be dressed up for a party: The company’s collection of flavored olive oils, including basil, garlic, and lemon make great creative playmates for pork chops (try with praline) or even kale chips (which are incredible when drizzled with fresh and tangy raspberry olive oil).
Folks can taste the luscious lineup by making an appointment with Jennifer and driving out the scenic farm, which is not a bad way to spend an afternoon. The barn makes a great placeholder for a tasting room, and the ladies’ two dogs, Dakota, a Catahoula mix, and Neiki, a border collie mix, love making new friends. Meanwhile, Tallent works to educate people on how to truly appreciate good olive oil.
“First, you observe the oil to see the beautiful quality of it,” she said, as if conducting a wine tasting. “Next, you want to smell the oil, and slurp it over the palate to pick up all the different flavors. Many people just haven’t tasted good olive oils. Upwards of 70 percent of what’s on the grocery shelf is not pure extra virgin olive oil.”
This is sad, but true (and a whole other story). Think of it as even more of a reason to check out this year’s Paso Robles Olive Festival kicking off in downtown’s City Park this June 3 and 4. More than a dozen local Central Coast olive oil producers will be on hand pouring their 100 percent EVOOs during the free event, which also features wine and beer tickets for $15, a cooking contest, olive oil ice cream, DJ, live music, and food from local restaurants.
Both of the Tallent ladies will be there, drizzling their golden oils and sharing their story. That story is one of passion, commitment, adversity, and strength. Through loss, biblical swarms of pests, and plenty of trial-by-error aha moments, the little startup known as The Groves on 41 has not only survived, but flourished.
Jennifer likes to tell of the harrowing 2012 frost, which wiped out around 500 precious olive trees. Or so she and her mom thought.
“Half of the koreneiki turned black and lost all of its leaves,” Jennifer said. “The ground squirrels had hit the roots of the trees and we were, at one point, pulling them out of the ground. It was really sad.”
Added her mother, “It was so disheartening. Although the damage was done, we had put water on the plants because we had heard it might protect the root system. Well, something went right.”
That following spring, a miracle occured.
“I was walking the field one day, and out of nowhere I see this very black tree trunk with little branches of green coming out,” Jennifer said. “They all started growing again.”
Like the bud break occurring across The Groves on 41 this current spring, life has a way of renewing itself.
“Those trees set a good example for us all,” Tallent said.