Australia / NZ

New Zealand Olive Oil Producers Set for Record Year

Olive oil production is at a record high in New Zealand with the potential to double in the coming years.

Olive trees on Waiheke island, New Zealand
Jul. 5, 2018
By Daniel Dawson
Olive trees on Waiheke island, New Zealand

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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.

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“[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.”

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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.

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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.

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“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.”