Coronavirus Impacts Some Australian Growers More Than Others as Harvest Nears

While much of the world grinds to a halt in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, olive growers in Australia are getting ready to harvest.

Boundary Bend
Mar. 31, 2020
By Daniel Dawson
Boundary Bend

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As the tally of COVID-19 cases and deaths steadily rise in Australia, prepa­ra­tions for the upcom­ing 2020 har­vest are already underway.

The vast major­ity of the main pro­duc­ing regions tend to start toward mid to late April,” Leandro Ravetti, an agri­cul­tural engi­neer and olive oil expert, told Olive Oil Times. We are expect­ing a lower level of crop if com­pared with the record crop in 2019, but cer­tainly bet­ter than in 2018.”

I am con­cerned that most grow­ers are liv­ing with gov­ern­ment dic­tates which are suit­able for the gen­eral pop­u­lace but are a bit lack­ing for each spe­cific hor­ti­cul­tural ven­ture.- Steve Milton, Western Australian Olive Council president

Olive grow­ers and oil pro­duc­ers, like most other agri­cul­tur­al­ists in the coun­try, have been con­sid­ered essen­tial ser­vices and will con­tinue to oper­ate as nor­mal, with some new health and safety guidelines.

For some pro­duc­ers, this means busi­ness as usual.

Most pro­duc­ers are quite self-suf­fi­cient in Australia so a lot of the restric­tion mea­sures are not hav­ing a sig­nif­i­cant impact on their prepa­ra­tions for har­vest,” Ravetti said. Restrictions on peo­ple’s move­ments have forced some changes in staff arrange­ments and addi­tional hygiene and iso­la­tion prac­tices have been put in place.”

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However, for oth­ers, the novel coro­n­avirus presents yet another chal­lenge in a year that began with record-break­ing wild­fires and sus­tained drought.

In Western Australia, which is home to one of the coun­try’s two largest pro­duc­ers, dimin­ish­ing water resources cou­pled with dam­age caused by ani­mals to some olive groves have already caused plenty of headaches for grow­ers and producers.

The sea­son has had good weather for grow­ing, but many grow­ers have stated that bird dam­age has been exces­sive in groves that are well down on their antic­i­pated pro­duc­tion,” Steve Milton, an olive grower and the pres­i­dent of the Western Australian Olive Council (WAOC), told Olive Oil Times. Added to this, water sup­plies have been a bit stretched for many. Harvest pro­duc­tion is expected to be patchy.”

On top of these set­backs, pro­duc­ers now must con­tend with the COVID-19 pan­demic and all of its asso­ci­ated side effects.

COVID-19 is a royal pain. The tim­ing could­n’t be worse,” Milton said. Olive grow­ers are set­ting up for har­vest, get­ting fuel stocks ready, orga­niz­ing har­vesters and the labor force, and deal­ing with last-minute changes as we pur­chase ingre­di­ents for processing.”

Some grow­ers in the state are also wor­ried about newly-imposed restric­tions on inter-region travel. They fear that these restric­tions may hurt their abil­ity to con­tract sea­sonal laborers.

Mobility is going to become an issue [now that] move­ment between regions is restricted,” Milton said.

On March 27, Western Australia placed new travel restric­tions on peo­ple com­ing into and out of the state. South Australia, another olive grow­ing region, has also imple­mented travel restric­tions. Victoria and New South Wales have not.

While travel for work will be per­mit­ted in regions with these new restric­tions, it remains unclear how sea­sonal work­ers will be impacted.

How grow­ers will access pick­ers is a ques­tion that many are ask­ing,” Milton said. This isn’t insur­mount­able, but train­ing and man­ag­ing safety space will become an issue. There are only a few mechan­i­cal har­vesters in Western Australia, so those grow­ers who are not able to con­tract pick­ers will be com­pet­ing for har­vest support.”

Along with the logis­ti­cal chal­lenges pre­sented by COVID-19, Milton and many of the country’s other olive grow­ers also worry about the lack of clar­ity pro­vided by the Australian gov­ern­ment for each type of agri­cul­tural activity.

I am con­cerned that most grow­ers are liv­ing with gov­ern­ment dic­tates which are suit­able for the gen­eral pop­u­lace but are a bit lack­ing for each spe­cific hor­ti­cul­tural ven­ture,” he said. Filling that gap from my role in WAOC is fraught as we want to avoid rumor but need to keep up with inter­pret­ing those changes in order to keep the men­tal state of grow­ers in a pos­i­tive and pro­duc­tive mode.”

Currently, most grow­ers are doing what they nor­mally do and live in hope,” he added. I know that some olive presses have estab­lished clear per­sonal space pro­ce­dures and these will be easy to work with.”

While many pro­duc­ers pre­pare them­selves for a chal­leng­ing har­vest, oth­ers are wor­ried about the impact that the virus will have on sales. Bars, restau­rants, mar­kets and spe­cialty shops are all closed in the country.

Similarly to other coun­tries fac­ing coro­n­avirus, extra vir­gin olive oil sales in Australia briefly spiked as the cri­sis began to unfold and Australians stocked up on sup­plies from the super­mar­ket. Since then, how­ever, sell­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties for small pro­duc­ers have dried up.

The biggest impact has been for smaller pro­duc­ers sell­ing through farm­ers mar­kets, those with grove door sales and those with sales into the food­ser­vice mar­ket,” Greg Seymour, the CEO of the Australian Olive Association (AOA), told Olive Oil Times.

While this has led some pro­duc­ers to shift to online sales, Seymour thinks there is no replace­ment for face-to-face inter­ac­tions in the olive oil busi­ness. He is also con­cerned about the impact that clos­ing food ser­vice com­pa­nies will have, since many of them source olive oil locally.

Sales in food­ser­vice are the major con­cern,” he said. Many din­ing estab­lish­ments have closed indef­i­nitely and busi­nesses depend­ing on inter­na­tional tourism have dis­ap­peared overnight.”


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