Ron and Chris Mickelsen’s days sound pretty idyllic, growing olives for artisan olive oil and living with extended family on a small farmstead in the heart of Sonoma Valley. And yes, in many ways, it’s an enviable lifestyle. But make no mistake, it’s also a huge amount of work. “We say all the time, ‘Are you ready yet for that low-maintenance condo in the city?’” jokes Chris. “But if we lived in the city, we’d need better clothes.”
Jeans and muck boots are standard springtime gear for the Glen Ellen family, which also includes Chris’ grown daughter Katie Shinn, Katie’s husband, Todd, and their two children, Norman, 10, and Louise, almost 3. The kids have never lived anywhere but the farm, where they play pingpong in the barn, chase soccer balls in the rows of olives, feed chickens, pick veggies and in general have the kind of deep-rooted, rustic upbringing that can feel all too rare these days.
The Mickelsens got into olives 20 years ago, after Chris traveled to Geyserville for a weekend seminar on making oil and decided to look for some land in Sonoma, where the growing climate is ideal. The couple was well-equipped for the undertaking: Ron is a lifelong plantsman with a degree in horticulture from Cal Poly, and he and Chris own Half Moon Bay Nursery on the coast south of San Francisco.
After buying the Glen Ellen farm from the founder of nearby Quarryhill Botanical Gardens (the farm’s main house used to be home to the garden’s director, while Katie and Todd’s family dwelling served as a guesthouse), they traveled to Italy to source their olive trees. They returned with 1,500 tiny rooted cuttings from Frantoio and Leccino trees, then grew the cuttings to planting size under quarantine at the nursery in Half Moon Bay. The high-density, highly productive olive groves are 18 years old this spring, and Ron and Chris still choose to prune and pick by hand alongside a local crew.
Traveling back and forth from their nursery day jobs in Half Moon Bay up to Sonoma provides a welcome change of pace for Ron and Chris, particularly now when the wisteria is blooming and the olives are preparing to flower. “Things move forward so quickly in spring. The bulbs are first, and then the wisteria hits, and everything is so lush and green,” says Chris. The couple loves getting to garden in a climate so different from that of their nursery. For the first few seasons, they were surprised at how quickly things grew — roses and other perennials doubled in size in a single year, and peppers and tomatoes went gangbusters in the summer warmth.
As befits two lifelong professional plant lovers, the gardens in Glen Ellen are in constant improvement mode. The couple recently interplanted some of the olive trees with grapevines. (“You live in the suburbs, you put in a lawn; you live up here and you put in a vineyard,” says Chris.) Two years ago, they added a small orchard and a fragrant rose garden for scented olive oil soaps. And there are always new seedlings from the nursery to test out. “We laugh, because in the spring, a bunch of plants get put in and then by fall they all get moved around again,” says Chris’ daughter Katie.
This spring, the farm will enter a new stage as Ron, Chris and the rest of the family continue to put things back together after last October’s wildfires, which heavily affected this close-knit area. On the farm, one of the barns and a guest cottage burned to the ground; incredibly, the fires were stopped just feet before they reached the family’s homes. Bottling equipment, tractors and a few olive trees were also lost, but the rest of the groves are healthy.
It’ll be a busy spring for sure, with a barn to rebuild, new plants to get in the ground and water lines to troubleshoot. “Every year when the irrigation gets turned back on, Ron spends the next few weeks on his hands and knees, looking down a muddy hole to find where the leaks are,” says Chris. It’s a true labor of love for the couple, who hold this land deep in their hearts and see that connection taking hold in their grandchildren. And they won’t be downsizing to a condo in the city anytime soon.