Farming and Bureaucracy, in the Organic Style

When I was a little girl, I wanted to be all the things that little girls want to be: a ballet dancer, a three day eventer, an astronaut, a fighter pilot, etc etc.

I did actually take ballet lessons, then achieve one of those ambitions, and I also spent many years organising and running horse events. At school, my careers advisor came up with ideas such as civil servant, travel agent, and fire fighter. I even did two of those jobs, but the closest that I ever got to fighting a fire was for my Duke of Edinburgh’s Bronze Award.


Strangely, nobody ever suggested that I become an olive farmer …

Until, in 2017, we fell in love with the Sabina region of Italy.

And we fell in love with a house.

A house that was supposed to be a weekend bolthole, a relaxing haven in which we could spend restful weekends, a peaceful escape from the chaos of Rome, where we lived and worked.

What it actually was, however, was eight point five HECTARES of abandoned farm, and a rather ordinary 1970s villa.

And so, obviously, we started down the road of becoming organic farmers, because we’d need to do something with the oil that we’d need to produce, from the trees on the farm that we needed to buy.

It took a year to buy the place:

Having survived buying the farm, we decided to acquire organic status. Because we had totally failed to learn that sometimes things are pretty blooming difficult here.

And so, in 2018, we worked and worked in the grove, and we set off down the road of applying for organic status.

First up, it became clear that having bought the farm as a “qualified farmer”, I was, in fact, only a trainee farmer. In order to qualify as a farmer, I would need to undergo 150 hours of training, and pass an exam. But I had three whole years to do this, and a job, and an abandoned farm to sort out, and a house to renovate, so ….

Our Organic Advisor first appeared in our lives in September of 2018. He and I walked around the olive grove, and the vineyard, and the hay fields that had already been harvested by our neighbour. The advisor scratched his head, tutted a lot, and then kindly helped me to complete a fourteen page application form, before relieving me of several hundred Euros, and disappearing. A couple of months later, we received an email confirming that we were now at the start of a three year organic conversion period, and that, as long as we continued behaving in compliance with the fourteen pages of terms and conditions that I had signed for, in three years, we would be organic farmers. Shortly thereafter, we received by registered post some farm registers for the year 2018, but as we hadn’t actually produced any crops in 2018, I filed them under a large pile of paper, and forgot all about them.

Fast forward to the spring of 2019, and by now we were living in a construction site, with guests staying with us in our small “apartment” over what had previously been the ground floor of our dilapidated villa. Our Farm Consultant phoned, and announced that he’d be at our front door the following morning, with the Organic Advisor, for a “spot check”, to confirm that we were complying with the fourteen pages of Terms and Conditions that I had signed for. Sadly, the following morning was not convenient, as I would be at work, and Scott would be cooking breakfast for our guests.

But …

Half an hour after I left for work, our two bureaucrats arrived anyway, and their first task was to examine the farm registers. Poor Scott phoned me in a state that could probably best be described as confused. Of course, he had no idea that the registers even existed, and I had forgotten all about them. Somehow, he heroically managed find the registers and then to prove that we were actually totally compliant with all fourteen pages of terms and conditions, and were simply, in our ignorance, waiting for the 2019 registers to arrive, rather than using the 2018 registers to record our farming activities. It turns out that the registers are not issued annually, despite appearances to the contrary.

The following year, as soon as the Covid lockdown lifted, Signor Bio visited us again, and was actually impressed with how neat and tidy the farm, the paperwork, and even the house were starting to look.

And we were actually getting to grips with the farm. The Italian word for the work that we were doing is “ripristinare”, and we were indeed repristining the trees. And the trees have been thanking us for it. They now look like an olive grove, rather than the enchanted forest from Sleeping Beauty.

In 2018, of our 400 trees, only 40 had olives. This has doubled every year, until this year we now have 320 trees bearing fruit!

We flew through our organic inspection this year, and started to prepare for bottling and exporting our oil to the UK!

And this is where we hit the wall.

And so, I present to you: how to sell organic olive oil, in 1,500 easy to follow steps … having already spent four years buying and converting a farm to organic status …

  1. Complete 150 hours of training: thanks to Covid, I was able to do it in the comfort of my own home, as all farmer courses were online this year.
  2. Pass the exam: the pass mark, incidentally, is 100%.
  3. Pass your third annual Organic Compliance Inspection.
  4. Go to the Farming Consultant, and request your precious organic certification.
  5. Wait two weeks.
  6. Go back to the Farming Consultant, and obtain your precious organic certification.
  7. Update your Food Hygiene training and pass that exam.
  8. Despite being a qualified organic farmer, with a food hygiene certificate, discover that you cannot gain permission to bottle your olive oil.
  9. Go to the local olive mill, to arrange for them to bottle your olive oil.
  10. Discover that they are unable to do this, as your certification is to produce olives, not olive oil.
  11. Go back to the Farm Consultant, and get your paperwork amended so that you can produce olive oil form your olives.
  12. Pay tax on this amendment.
  13. Wait.
  14. Design a pretty label for your gorgeous olive oil while you wait.
  15. Go to the local Print Shop, with your olive oil bottle label design.
  16. Discover that only licenced bottlers of olive oil can buy olive oil labels.
  17. Go back to the olive mill.
  18. Ask the mill owner’s Mamma for help.
  19. Enlist her help, which she will offer with kindness. Only, even though you are a qualified farmer, and a certified producer of olives for olive oil, you are not registered with SIAM, or possibly SIAN, so she can’t, in fact, help you.
  20. Go back to the Farm Consultant. But it’s Wednesday, so ….
  21. Go back to the Farm Consultant on Friday (even though the office is closed on Fridays), and get him to register you with SIAM, or SIAN, or what ever.
  22. Wait a week, until all the registrations that have been done appear on computer screens.
  23. Register with the UK as an importer of olive oil. Receive a number beginning with GB online within five minutes.
  24. Start the process to be able to export olive oil from Italy (EU) to the UK (or GB, or whatever Boris wants us to call it), only to find that we need to submit an application form to obtain an EORI number (the same thing as the UK importer number referenced above, but beginning with IT – still with me?).
  25. Then submit the application online using the the EDI service, for which you need to submit an application to access the service, after, of course, you go to the local customs office to receive access codes.
  26. Then after you obtain your EORI number, submit import/export documentation (I think it says 8 copies?) and…
  27. If the computer says yes, go through almost the same process on the UK Customs system (for which I don’t know if I need to apply and download the software yet!!) to see if we can import our oil and if there will be any tariffs applicable. Yes my British brethren there are tariffs to pay in our post-Brexit trade agreement!!
  28. And all this before we have even picked our olives, had them milled, bottled the oil, had any labels designed and printed or lost our sense of humour. I lied about the last bit.
  29. Remember the pretty labels!!!
  30. Try to contact the Print Shop, Olive Mill Owner and his Mamma, and fail, because now they are all harvesting their own olives ….
  31. Wait…………………………………….

6 thoughts on “Farming and Bureaucracy, in the Organic Style

  1. I am exhausted just reading your humorous account of organic bureaucracy never mind doing it! And the before and after photos of the olive grove are amazing.


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