Australia / NZ

Drought, Not Fire, Remains the Bane of Australian Olive Growers

Australia's olive growers have mostly been spared from the wildfires that have been ravaging the country. Persistent drought, however, continues to cause concern.

The wildfires raging across Eastern Australia can be seen from space. Photo courtesy of the European Space Agency.
Jan. 13, 2020
By Daniel Dawson
The wildfires raging across Eastern Australia can be seen from space. Photo courtesy of the European Space Agency.

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As wild­fires con­tinue to burn across large por­tions of south­east­ern Aus­tralia, olive grow­ers are report­ing that their groves have largely been left undam­aged.

The only phys­i­cal dam­age to a grove occurred in South Aus­tralia and that was­n’t badly burned,” Greg Sey­mour, the CEO of the Aus­tralian Olive Asso­ci­a­tion (AOA), told Olive Oil Times. They are the only ones who we’ve had reports of being directly burned by the fire.”

How­ever, Sey­mour cau­tioned that this remains an incom­plete pic­ture. He has not heard back from every grower in the affected areas and pointed out that fires are con­tin­u­ing to burn across the coun­try.

We’re mov­ing right into peak fire sea­son now and there’s no rain pre­dicted until March, so this isn’t all over… The fires don’t just go out.- Greg Sey­mour, CEO of the Aus­tralian Olive Asso­ci­a­tion

At the time of writ­ing and based on the infor­ma­tion cur­rently avail­able, it appears unlikely that Australia’s 2020 har­vest will be directly impacted by the fires. Instead, Sey­mour argues that one of the symp­toms of these fires – the long and per­sis­tent drought – and some unfore­seen reper­cus­sions of the fire are more likely to impact the upcom­ing har­vest.

What we’ve seen is a mas­sive exo­dus of insects and other ani­mals from the impacted areas,” Sey­mour said. They are head­ing some­where that is green and safe. We’ve seen olive groves with quite high lev­els of pests, such as lacewing, that nor­mally would­n’t occur at these types of lev­els and we’re yet to see the reper­cus­sions of this type of migra­tion on the olive groves.”

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Sey­mour also warned that peak fire sea­son is about to begin in Aus­tralia, mean­ing active wild­fires may become larger and new wild­fires will inevitably start.

See more: Cli­mate Change News

We’re mov­ing right into peak fire sea­son now and there’s no rain pre­dicted until March, so this isn’t all over,” he said. It will come up again as soon as the weather changes. The fires don’t just go out.”

And even when the fires do go out, the harm they cause to agri­cul­ture goes far beyond the imme­di­ate dam­age of smoke and burn­ing plants.

Wild­fires have many points of impact on hor­ti­cul­tural busi­nesses,” Steve Mil­ton, an olive grower and the pres­i­dent of the West­ern Aus­tralian Olive Coun­cil, told Olive Oil Times. Top­soil, com­post and mulches are impacted seri­ously through the loss of microor­gan­isms and the micro­bi­otics essen­tial for build­ing a soil ecol­ogy that can sus­tain plants. This takes a long time to build or rebuild and can be very expen­sive.”

Mil­ton also pointed out that fight­ing wild­fires requires vast amounts of water that usu­ally comes from rivers and local dams at the expense of agri­cul­ture.

In my instance, water loss from my dams through it being used in fight­ing last year’s fires, fol­lowed by a very dry win­ter has resulted in my dams being seri­ously depleted to the point that I can’t afford to irri­gate my grove this year,” he said. My trees are stressed and I find a lot of fruit on the ground.”

Will these things have an impact on the com­ing har­vest?,” Mil­ton asked. Most likely for me.”

Australia’s unprece­dent­edly large and early wild­fires are a symp­tom of a much larger prob­lem that is hav­ing a far greater impact on olive grow­ers and agri­cul­tur­al­ists of all types across Aus­tralia: not enough rain­fall.

There has been no rain. That’s the prob­lem,” Sey­mour said. For loads of peo­ple, they just haven’t had rain or any mean­ing­ful mois­ture for two sea­sons.”

Accord­ing to Australia’s Bureau of Mete­o­rol­ogy (BOM), 2019 was both the hottest and dri­est year on record. Based on research that the BOM has done, this appears to be unlikely to change in the near future.

Aus­tralia is cur­rently in a very strong pos­i­tive Indian Ocean dipole, where cooler ocean tem­per­a­tures off the coast of the con­ti­nent and hot­ter tem­per­a­tures off the coast of Africa lead to winds blow­ing from east to west. These winds take the mois­ture away from the Aus­tralian coast and deposit more rain on South Asia and East Africa.

The cur­rent state of the Indian Ocean dipole means the chances of dra­matic improve­ment to the amount of sea­sonal rain­fall in Aus­tralia is very low.

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A neg­a­tive Indian Ocean dipole causes the oppo­site phe­nom­e­non, in which Aus­tralia would receive more rain­fall. How­ever, neg­a­tive Indian Ocean dipoles are con­sid­er­ably rarer than pos­i­tive ones, with only two major ones occur­ring since 1992.

Instead, the major con­trib­u­tor of rain­fall in Aus­tralia is the phe­nom­e­non known as La Niña, which takes place in the Pacific Ocean. Dur­ing La Niña events, cooler water tem­per­a­tures along the equa­tor cause the wind to blow west and deposit rain­fall in Aus­tralia. Over the past decade, there have been three La Niña events with the last one com­ing in 2017 – 18.

In spite of these cli­matic chal­lenges, Sey­mour said that olive grow­ers in Aus­tralia are learn­ing to adapt. A com­bi­na­tion of chang­ing agro­nom­i­cal prac­tices, effec­tive gov­ern­ment lob­by­ing and good mar­ket­ing prac­tices will help ensure a sus­tain­able future for the coun­try’s olive sec­tor.

At our 2018 con­fer­ence, we had pre­sen­ta­tions on some good research done on irri­ga­tion tim­ing, vol­umes, salin­ity impacts and renew­ing the struc­ture of the trees,” Sey­mour said.

He cited an exam­ple of grow­ers using years in which they have poor yields to prune trees and improve the over­all health of their groves. Tak­ing the time to do this in unpro­duc­tive years helps boost the trees’ pro­duc­tiv­ity in sea­sons with more rain.

Peo­ple are uti­liz­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties to do things they might not always do,” Sey­mour said.

In West­ern Aus­tralia, where ground­wa­ter sources are rapidly dry­ing up, pro­duc­ers are also inves­ti­gat­ing the most effec­tive times to irri­gate to keep trees and soil healthy.

We are look­ing closely at what olive trees really need in cer­tain soils and ecosys­tems so that we can rec­om­mend water economies that don’t reduce pro­duc­tiv­ity,” Mil­ton, from the West­ern Aus­tralian Olive Coun­cil, said.

The over­ar­ch­ing idea is to be able to max­i­mize olive yields while min­i­miz­ing water inputs and there­fore pro­duc­tion costs. As the water dries up across the con­ti­nent, the price of irri­ga­tion is quickly ris­ing.

The cost of water is going up expo­nen­tially because there’s a short­age and the high­est-earn­ing crops can pay the most for it,” Sey­mour said. That makes it dif­fi­cult for peo­ple to get the water and, when they can get it, make grow­ing olives prof­itable.”

One of the remits of the AOA is lob­by­ing both fed­eral and state gov­ern­ments in Aus­tralia to make sure that water mar­kets are more trans­par­ent and farm­ers can get fair prices.

Sey­mour and the AOA are cur­rently await­ing the results of an audit by the Aus­tralian Secu­ri­ties and Invest­ments Com­mis­sion on the han­dling of water mar­kets. Sey­mour said he expects to get the results in March or April next year.

Hope­fully the water mar­kets will allow grow­ers to get greater access and more fair pric­ing of water,” he said.

In terms of mar­ket­ing, Sey­mour believes it is impor­tant to con­tinue tout­ing the qual­ity of Aus­tralian olive oils through con­sumer edu­ca­tion and out­reach. He said that it is cru­cial to empha­size that Australia’s high-qual­ity olive oils cost more than infe­rior-qual­ity oils, but are well worth the price dif­fer­ence.

A very big chunk of the indus­try has good irri­ga­tion water and quite frankly when it’s hot and dry and you’ve got plenty of water, it’s great for grow­ing olives because there is less pest dis­ease and max­i­mum pho­to­syn­the­sis,” Sey­mour said. Times are tough, but the redeem­ing fac­tor is that we get really high-qual­ity oils. That’s the only kind of com­fort we can get out of this sit­u­a­tion.”





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