Australia / NZ

Drought in Australia Portends Tough Season Ahead for Small Growers

While the overall sector is likely to remain largely unaffected, small growers on the eastern seaboard may bear the brunt of the drought.

Murray River
Sep. 7, 2018
By Daniel Dawson
Murray River

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New South Wales (NSW) and other parts of Australia’s east­ern seaboard con­tinue to be rav­aged by a drought that shows no signs of let­ting up.

While things look grim right now, one good rain event could make an enor­mous dif­fer­ence to the 2019 crop.- Greg Seymour, Australian Olive Association

While the pro­longed dry spell has wreaked havoc on ranch­ers and grain farm­ers, some of the state’s small olive grow­ers and oil pro­duc­ers are wary that their crops and prof­its may be dam­aged as well.

According to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, NSW has expe­ri­enced its driest winter since 2002 and driest year since 1965.

Hot and dry con­di­tions led to lower olive oil yields in the state during the pre­vi­ous har­vest season. About 20 per­cent of Australia’s olive grow­ers are located in NSW. Another 40 per­cent are located in Queensland, Victoria and Tasmania, all of which have suf­fered from the drought.

“The pro­longed hot, dry con­di­tions at flow­er­ing in 2017, and par­tic­u­larly during the ripen­ing period in 2018, con­tributed sig­nif­i­cantly to low yields for the 2018 season,” Greg Seymour, the CEO of the Australian Olive Association, told Olive Oil Times.

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However, the state’s olive trees will not flower until October. Whether or not there is rain between now and then will com­pletely change olive grow­ers’ for­tunes.

“It is too early to tell [if the coming year’s oil yield or qual­ity will be affected by the drought],” Seymour said. “An assess­ment post flow­er­ing will give us a much clearer indi­ca­tion of what we can expect.”

The Australian Olive Association will head out for a series of field days in November, which will give them a good idea of how this har­vest season’s olive yield will look.

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“While things look grim right now, one good rain event could make an enor­mous dif­fer­ence to the 2019 crop,” Seymour added.

The latest fore­casts from the Bureau of Meteorology pre­dict that the drought will con­tinue well into the summer. Andrew Watkins, one of the Bureau’s mete­o­rol­o­gists, warned farm­ers to brace for a hotter and drier spring than usual. He also said that drought con­di­tions are fore­casted to inten­sify across the coun­try.

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“[We are] look­ing at aver­age to below-aver­age rain­fall, unfor­tu­nately, for the drought areas and warmer-than-aver­age con­di­tions through those areas as well,” Watkins told reporters at a recent press con­fer­ence.

He expects that NSW will be one of the states most affected by the drought, which may be com­pounded during the summer months if El Niño forms. According to mete­o­rol­o­gists, there is about a 50 per­cent chance that will happen.

“This will basi­cally mean that as we get into summer, there’d be less chance of having those recov­ery rains that we need,” Watkins said. “We might have to wait until as late as autumn in 2019 to start seeing some recov­ery rains in the drought areas.”

However, NSW did receive some rain in August, which came as a pleas­ant reprieve for local olive grow­ers.

“Hopefully it’s enough to carry us through,” Jayne Bentivoglio, the CEO of Rylstone Olive Press, told Olive Oil Times. “We are strug­gling with water every­where. We are cur­rently in drought water­ing mode, so we’re buying water and bring­ing it in from else­where.”

Bentivoglio grows 8,000 olive trees at a farm located 3.5 hours north­west of Sydney. She only irri­gates about half of her trees due to how expen­sive buying water is. Bentivoglio said the drought is more likely to impact the quan­tity of olives she will have to har­vest next autumn, not the qual­ity of the result­ing oil.

“I may not always get a crop, but when I do the qual­ity is always of an award-win­ning stan­dard,” she said.

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To deter­mine whether or not the qual­ity of the oil will be affected, Bentivoglio will need to wait until February. This is when the flesh under­neath the skin of the olives devel­ops. If February is very dry then the flesh growth will be inad­e­quate and the result­ing oil will be of lower qual­ity.

While there are not yet any reports cir­cu­lat­ing about the effects of the drought on Australian olive groves, how badly olive farm­ers will be impacted largely depends on how they irri­gate their trees.

“I would expect that those groves rely­ing on local sur­face catch­ment for irri­ga­tion water will be affected as they are unlikely to have full dams at the start of the grow­ing season unless some sig­nif­i­cant rain events take place in the near future,” Leandro Ravetti, the tech­ni­cal direc­tor of Modern Olives, told Olive Oil Times.

“Those grow­ers rely­ing on bore water or water from larger irri­ga­tion sys­tems, such as the Murray-Darling basin, will not be affected by the drought as the water supply is quite cer­tain,” he added.

The Murray-Darling basin stretches through­out NSW and Victoria and is also par­tially located in South Australia and Queensland.

While some small olive grow­ers in Victoria and South Australia told Olive Oil Times that they do not expect to expe­ri­ence much of an impact from the drought, others are con­cerned that their pro­duc­tion costs will increase sharply with water prices.

Unlike other olive pro­duc­ing coun­tries where the gov­ern­ment has stepped in to pro­vide assis­tance during times of drought, the Australian gov­ern­ment has not. It has instead focussed its atten­tion and resources on ranch­ers.

“It’s pretty hard to get money out of the gov­ern­ment, espe­cially for small grow­ers,” Bentivoglio said. “There’s no gov­ern­ment help for olive grow­ers.”

In spite of the impacts of the drought, Seymour believes there will not be a drop-off in pro­duc­tiv­ity for the over­all Australian olive oil sector. The coun­try is enter­ing an on-year and large olive oil pro­duc­ers in west­ern Australia have largely escaped the effects of the drought.

“If BBO and west­ern Australia have a good year in 2019, which is look­ing like a good pos­si­bil­ity, then the impact on the Australian olive oil sector in terms of volume will not be all that sig­nif­i­cant,” Seymour added, refer­ring to Boundary Bend Olives, the largest olive oil pro­ducer in Australia.

However, small pro­duc­ers in the east — espe­cially in NSW — will be the ones feel­ing the brunt of the drought, both in the groves and on their bottom lines.

“The impact will be felt by indi­vid­ual small pro­duc­ers rather than the indus­try,” Seymour said.