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.

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“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.

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“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.”