Viola


visionary farmer
The Story

When we asked Marco Viola, olive farmer and master miller at Azienda Agricola Viola, to describe the harvest season in one word, he responded, "Rebirth." This sentiment should not be surprising from someone who has seen olive trees flower and grow heavy with fruit every year he can remember. In many ways all of us are products of our place in the world. We become echoes of the place and people that created us. The same can be said of the land, as its character also reflects its history. Each year, as the Earth traces its path around the Sun to initiate a cycle of rebirth, new mysteries await. Yet how Marco Viola would live his life never seemed much in doubt.

Viola's olive trees grow in the stony hills above Sant'Eraclio di Foligno, a small town halfway between Assisi and Spoleto in Perugia province, in the Umbria region of central Italy. The city of Foligno has long been the meeting point of major road networks connecting it to Southern and Northern Italy and the Adriatic Sea. Any land like this has seen much history, been trampled by many feet, seen major battles and endless minor squabbles. This area may not be too different from other cities across Europe, or across the world, that have witnessed travelers throughout recorded time. The land farmed here has been farmed for ages. It has been worked, and grown rocky. The people who lived here have been farmers, people who lived by the grace of the land. They found that the land suited them, or perhaps they felt they didn't belong anywhere else. All across Umbria the same olive varieties thrive: Frantoio, Leccino, Moraiolo. These olive trees also belong here. Marco Viola belongs here. Some people are meant to travel, to flow through many crossroads. Others have no choice: they grow into a family business, and live in a place because they work in a place. Some yearn to escape that life. Marco Viola grew up in the olive groves of his family, and one day understood he wanted no other life.

I can't remember when I first felt attracted to this job but I instinctively chose it.

The rocky soil and olive trees of Scandolaro Hill.

With their deep ties to Roman history, the Umbrian people throw celebrations throughout the year to show their reverence for their region’s past. The events include the "Calendimaggio of Assisi," a spring festival with performances in medieval costumes, and "Giostra della Quintana," a famous jousting tournament in Foligno that the locals revived in 1946. During the "Market of the Gaite," in the small town of Bevagna, just east of Sant'Eraclio, inhabitants spend 10 days reconstructing daily life of the late Middle Ages in great detail.

This fascination with the past extends to the area's farmers, who in recent years have brought forgotten indigenous food crops back into circulation. Foligno has excellent viticulture, and in the last 30 years local winemakers began producing a DOC wine from a nearly extinct indigenous grape called Sagrantino. Regional farmers have also rediscovered an ancient Etruscan bean known as Fagiolina del Trasimeno, a Slow Food Presidia product. Other legumes recently revived include Cicerchia, Fava Cottora, and the Roveja Pea, the last of which is among the fifteen different organic legume and cereal products Marco Viola grows on his farmland. Of course the olive tree is among the most ancient agricultural products of the greater Mediterranean region, and Marco plans to bring additional indigenous olive cultivars to his groves in the near future.

My choices have always been guided by a strong sense of admiration for those who have made a lot of sacrifices to grow olives and have devoted themselves fully to farming.

This rediscovery of crops in Umbria may be as much about the ancient foods as it is about the farmers' connection to the their specific region. Marco Viola says he is proud to be a farmer, and that the local ecosystem inspires him to protect the ancient traditions that preserve the land. On his company's website he discusses the ethical standards that he expects both his employees and business partners to uphold, perhaps because he believes so earnestly in his unwritten contract with both the land and the clientele he serves. When he mentions the many awards his oils have won, he does so only in the context that the opinions of his customers are all that matter. While he incorporates modern science in both his farming and oil production, traditional techniques are fundamental. He chooses to conduct organic farming practices, not because he cares about his public image, but because doing otherwise would be a violation of his identity. The quality of his oil did not arrive by chance, it is the result of the indigenous trees growing in the rocky soil, and "simple actions that show our respect."

It can be easy to romanticize the life of a farmer, but when the farmer shows such pure vision, the romanticism feels justified; there are certain fundamental truths that sublimate everything. Recalling the cheerful voices and songs of the harvesters from his youth, Marco shows his understanding that, "all we give to nature will be given back to us as a precious gift."

The People Behind Viola

The People
Marco Viola

The Viola family began growing olives more than 150 years ago in the 1800s. The first olive grove in the family was owned by Ferdinando Viola, who learned the love of olive tree cultivation from his parents Biagio and Lucia Viola. After working as a sharecropper for years, Ferdinando purchased his first plot of land in the mid-19th century, a small, rocky olive grove on Scandolaro hill above Sant'Eraclio. Holding land meant Ferdinando could raise a family there, and he soon married Anna, who brought with her a dowry of olive trees. When their son Diamante inherited these groves, the property extended across 30 hectares. Working with his Uncle Feliciano, Diamante founded the company in 1917, with the first Viola olive oil mill built in Sant'Eraclio.

30 years later the company built a larger oil mill just outside the village. Producing oil in his mill from olives grown on his farm became the primary trade of Biagio Viola, Diamante's son. Marco Viola would go on to inherit the business from his father, Biagio. Marco grew up in the family business, working in the mill and the olive groves since his teenage years. After Marco took over the mill, quality became a constant at every level of production. He engrossed himself in agricultural and technical study, and then focused on improving both the olive grove cultivation and olive crushing technology to get a higher quality product. Today he consults for several bigger olive oil mills, remains deeply involved in the local producer associations, and has built up a consortium with producers from other regions.

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Production
The Land & Trees

Of his fondest memories Marco Viola cites visiting the olive groves with his grandfather, Diamante, and tasting the olives in the months leading up to harvest with great hopes that they will produce excellent oil. The Foligno hills, covered with majestic age-old olive trees, have always been the background to the Viola family business. Those that came before him made great sacrifices to keep and care for the land in order to sustain their families and the local workers. The trees grow on sunny, steep slopes. The chalky and stony soil, in combination with the mild, windy and moderately damp climate, make this area ideal for olive growing. The oldest trees in these hills are Moraiolo, with many planted centuries ago. The oldest tree in the region is the olive tree of Sant'Emiliano di Trevi. Recent test using radiocarbon dating estimates that the tree has lived more than 1,600 years.

Throughout the year Marco and his team assesses the soil and performs regular treatments to maintain the trees in pristine condition. The fruit of the olive trees also receive a great deal of attention to avoid the proliferation of insects and diseases. Marco's farm currently holds 14 hectares (34.5 acres) of olive groves, with approximately 5,000 olive trees. However, through his collaboration with local growers, the company manages around 27,000 olive trees across 100 hectares (247 acres) of land. The olive production of the company breaks down to about 70% moraiolo, 25% frantoio, and 5% leccino. Oil production roughly follows this result, although in bad harvest years they choose not produce certain oils. On average the company produces between 60,000 and 100,000 bottles of extra virgin olive oil each year, with each bottle reflecting the peculiarities of the territory and the uniqueness of the indigenous cultivars.

I must thank my family for believing in me and supporting me in my job which, day after day, is becoming a marvelous dream. They have given me strength and firmness and I have been able to go on because I know I am not alone.


Local workers carry baskets of freshly picked olives.

Harvest

The harvest begins when the green olives reach a precise moment of almost turning ripe. All the great producers can recognize this moment in their particular olives, though with the changing climate this grows more challenging. On the Viola farm the first harvest typically occurs near the beginning of October. The company hires both local and migrant workers to pick the fruit, who will only use manual combs or hand-held pneumatic combs to minimize any damage to the fruit and trees. While bigger olives like leccino and moraiolo tend to be easier to pick, the ripeness of the olives and the condition of the hillside can make the operations more complex.

Production & Sustainability

According to Marco Viola, producing high quality extra virgin olive oil requires processing sound fruits without altering their nutritional and organoleptic features. This effort begins with the accurate selection of the varietals, a very short time interval between the tree and the mill, and perseverance and great care in the olive crushing. The Viola mill operates the latest-generation of continuous mechanical crushers. The oil that results gets pumped into a three-phase centrifugal decanter, chosen for its low consumption of water, efficiency, and quality of the final product. In the last 10 years the company has upgraded every piece of mill equipment in order to create oils of the highest possible quality, with unique organoleptic and analytical characteristics.

The company also continues to improve its sustainability practices. They strive to fertilize the trees and improve the surrounding soil in a low-impact manner. They selected mill technology that reduced energy consumption. Furthermore, all by-products get reused, with liquid waste processed for ferti-irrigation and the pomace delivered to a biomass plant for energy production. In the future Marco hopes to build a new olive oil mill that reduces the company's environmental footprint even further.

Viola's Il Sincero won the 2019 Flos Olei award for Best Extra Virgin Olive Oil of the Year.

247
acres of olive trees
3
different olive varieties
crushed by metal-toothed grinder
picked by hand
350
feet above sea level (avg)
1917
year founded
Visit Viola

The Estate
Oleotourism

The Viola farm and mill does not conduct any agrotourism, though the mill does have a retail shop where oils and other food products may be purchased. For those who plan to conduct business with them or patronize the shop, the company may be able to negotiate with other local agrotourism operations to arrange the best rate for visitors to the area.

To an American who has never tried quality extra virgin olive oil before, Marco Viola notes its healthy benefits, that as an unsaturated fat it can lower cholesterol, despite the confusion that misinformation campaigns try to sow. He recommends buyers check out the producer, the origin, and the harvest time or expiration date. Finally, he insists that “the pungent and bitter taste notes you may find in an extra virgin olive oil are essential characteristics if well balanced. The aroma could recall the scent of tomatoes, artichokes, cut grass, sage, apple, basil.” Clear communication with the customer is an essential part of his business, so Marco always wants to ensure the consumer can verify the accuracy of the information provided on the quality and nutritional characteristics of his extra virgin olive oils.

I love my land deeply because from it I receive all that I know and possess. The greatest gift my family has passed down to me is the passion I put in the cultivation of the olive trees that grow on the hills near my village and that have for centuries clung to the clefts in the rock.

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