Olive trees on Waiheke island, New Zealand

Olive har­vest­ing sea­son is in full swing in New Zealand, where pro­duc­ers are expect­ing a record-set­ting year.

There have to be good results finan­cially to get more peo­ple involved. Passion isn’t enough.- Gayle Sheridan, Olives NZ

Gayle Sheridan, the exec­u­tive offi­cer of Olives NZ, attrib­uted the increase to bet­ter weather. He also praised a joint effort, which is being led by the asso­ci­a­tion and par­tially funded by the gov­ern­ment, for help­ing to spur on the growth.

“2018, is look­ing to be a record year with some record ton­nages being reported across the coun­try and espe­cially from the groves fol­low­ing the Focus Grove Project method­olo­gies,” Sheridan said.

David Walshaw is one of the olive farm­ers tak­ing part in the Focus Grove Project and the author of Olive Oil the New Zealand Way. He has run a small fam­ily oper­a­tion of about 2,300 trees for the past 15 years.

Walshaw praised the Focus Grove Project and said that the imple­men­ta­tion of many of their prac­tices, includ­ing rota­tional prun­ing, allow­ing trees to grow to be taller, machine-har­vest­ing and spray­ing pro­tec­tant on trees, have led to an increase in his olive yields.

“[This] com­bi­na­tion has ensured, cer­tainly, that the focus groves and some oth­ers have been able to increase their pro­duc­tion. My aver­ages have increased con­sid­er­ably,” he said. “This year I ended up with about 38 kilo­grams [of olives] per tree, which was way higher than I was get­ting before. I think that result speaks for itself.”

Walshaw har­vested 50 tonnes of olives from his trees this year, which was the largest amount yet in his 15-year olive grow­ing career and a con­sid­er­able improve­ment from last year’s total of 27 tonnes.

“This is mostly to do with the way we prune and the way we spray pro­tec­tive spray across our trees. We now do that uni­formly across many groves,” he said. “The high per­form­ing groves, which mine would be regarded to be, would have nowhere near the same pro­duc­tion if we weren’t spray­ing for pro­tec­tion against dis­ease.”

New Zealand pro­duced about 184 tonnes of olive oil last year, almost all of which was graded as extra vir­gin. Sheridan expects that fig­ure to be much larger this year but does not have any offi­cial pro­duc­tion esti­mates yet.

“This is a great result fol­low­ing on from 2017 when 40 per­cent of olive groves across the coun­try had no har­vest because of weather events,” he said.

Walshaw agreed that unusual weather affected olive yields, but said that last year was also an off-year for many grow­ers in New Zealand, and that affected yields as well. As a result, he expects to have another down year in 2019 but thinks it will not be quite as bad as it was in 2017.

“We are grad­u­ally get­ting our pro­duc­tion up and the pro­duc­tion for the dif­fer­ent trees is get­ting more uni­form,” he said. “[But] I expect we will have a down year next year.”

Even as pro­duc­tion con­tin­ues to fluc­tu­ate between on and off years, olive oil con­sump­tion remains steady. The aver­age New Zealander con­sumes about one liter of olive oil per annum, accord­ing to research released by Olives NZ in May.

“[Consumption will] prob­a­bly remain pretty sta­tic, but extra vir­gin olive oil is by far the main oil used,” Sheridan said. “Olives NZ’s lat­est research has shown that 75 per­cent of con­sumers use olive oil, albeit maybe not exclu­sively.”

One of the main chal­lenges in New Zealand is con­tin­u­ing to increase pro­duc­tion in order to lessen the country’s depen­dence on imports. POne of the obsta­cles in doing so is get­ting started, which requires a large invest­ment of time and cap­i­tal up front with mod­est returns.

“Returns aren’t huge and one has to be well orga­nized in the grow­ing and mar­ket­ing to make any rea­son­able income,” Walshaw said. “And that income does­n’t hap­pen for the first 10 or 12 years, I sus­pect.”

New Zealand cur­rently pro­duces less than 10 per­cent of the extra vir­gin olive oil that is con­sumed there.

“However, [we have] the poten­tial to at least dou­ble that by improv­ing pro­duc­tiv­ity,” Sheridan said. A pro­duc­tion increase could also boost the country’s fledg­ling export mar­ket, which makes up about 10 per­cent of its pro­duc­tion, and almost all of which is des­tined for Japan.

“While export­ing is a niche area for some large grow­ers, the best oppor­tu­nity is to increase local con­sump­tion of New Zealand extra vir­gin olive oil,” Sheridan added.

Many of New Zealand’s cur­rent pro­duc­ers are dri­ven by their pas­sion for olive oil, but Walshaw said that is not enough to make up for poor finan­cial per­for­mance by the crop. Even so, he is opti­mistic about the future as for­eign judges con­tinue to praise the qual­ity of New Zealand olive oils.

“I think the sec­tor will con­tinue to grow, but in the end to get a large enough econ­omy, there have to be good results finan­cially to get more peo­ple involved,” he said. “Passion isn’t enough.”




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