Australian Producers Making Do Despite Bush Fires, Record Drought

In spite of a record drought and devastating bush fires, some large Australian producers are expecting close to an average production and high-quality oils in 2020.

Australia's severe drought has caused rivers to dry out in New South Wales.
Jan. 27, 2020
By Matthew Cortina
Australia's severe drought has caused rivers to dry out in New South Wales.

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Australian olive oil pro­duc­ers have faced unique chal­lenges this year, as one of the worst droughts in its his­tory and dev­as­tat­ing bush fires have rav­aged much of the coun­try.

Despite the chal­lenges, some big Australian olive oil pro­duc­ers are expe­ri­enc­ing qual­ity fruit growth and may come close to aver­age pro­duc­tion num­bers in terms of quan­tity.

Higher water prices con­tinue to have a neg­a­tive finan­cial impact on all farm­ers and grow­ers who require irri­ga­tion water to grow their crop.- Andrew Burgess, Boundary Bend busi­ness devel­op­ment man­ager

A large bush fire spread through much of south­ern and east­ern Australia last year, with the worst of the dam­age com­ing in the last few months in New South Wales and Victoria, where many of the country’s olive groves are located. The fires, exac­er­bated by dry weather and high tem­per­a­tures, ruined thou­sands of homes and busi­nesses.

The olive grow­ers that have been most impacted are those in New South Wales and those who oper­ate small groves that do not have the ben­e­fit of irri­ga­tion.

See Also: The Best Australian Olive Oils

Our fruit vol­umes will def­i­nitely be down on last year,” Westerly Isbaih of Alto Olives, in New South Wales, said. That is due to a com­bi­na­tion of it being a lean year for us any­way, but also the drought. What fruit we do have is not suf­fer­ing from any pest or dis­ease issues so we see no poten­tial qual­ity issues.”

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Isbaih said the lack of mois­ture toward the end of 2019 and hot gale-force winds had a dam­ag­ing impact on flow­er­ing.

Alto was not directly affected by the fires, but smoke from the wide­spread blaze cov­ered much of the region. Fortunately for grow­ers, smoke is hav­ing lit­tle to impact of olive growth.

Isbaih said Alto will invest fur­ther in its drip irri­ga­tion sys­tem to coun­ter­act the ongo­ing drought.

Irrigation, said Boundary Bend busi­ness devel­op­ment man­ager Andrew Burgess, is crit­i­cal to the con­tin­ued suc­cess of Australian grow­ers.

As the Boundary Bend groves are fully irri­gated, we have achieved some very good growth with very lit­tle dis­ease pres­sure,” Burgess said of Boundary Bend’s oper­a­tions in Victoria, which is south of New South Wales.

But irri­ga­tion comes at a price, Burgess said, as water resources are strained through­out the region in the ongo­ing drought.

The con­se­quence of the drought is higher water prices which has and con­tin­ues to have a neg­a­tive finan­cial impact on all farm­ers and grow­ers who require irri­ga­tion water to grow their crop,” he said.

Burgess added that Boundary Bend is expect­ing a rea­son­ably sized crop this year” thanks to its exten­sive irri­ga­tion sys­tem.

On the Mornington Peninsula in south­ern Victoria, Taralinga Estate has a large dam filled with bore water and rain­fall that has allowed the com­pany to con­tinue pro­duc­ing qual­ity olive oil, said Taralinga’s Karen Godfrey.

Our 2019 har­vest was a lit­tle down on 2018 in terms of quan­tity, but has already proven itself in terms of qual­ity with two gold medals at the Australian Food Awards and best in show at the Golden Olive Awards,” she said.

Godfrey noted that many olive grow­ers face ongo­ing uncer­tainty with regard to irri­ga­tion water” in the region.

Burgess added that the Australian Olive Association is cur­rently reach­ing out to small grow­ers near the epi­cen­ter of the bush fire to see what the dam­age has been.

Despite the chal­lenges posed by the drought, Isbaih said: in many parts of Australia olives absolutely thrive which makes them a per­fect crop.”

Though low tem­per­a­tures in late win­ter and early spring some­times present obsta­cles for grow­ers, south­ern Australia is gen­er­ally more tem­per­ate and suit­able for olive growth than the trop­i­cal cli­mate in the country’s north.

And the Australian olive oil indus­try is grow­ing, as a result, said Godfrey.

The Australian olive indus­try has grown sub­stan­tially over the last 15 years. Australia is the largest con­sumer of olive oil per capita out­side the Mediterranean so, in our opin­ion, the future of the indus­try here is look­ing very good indeed,” she said, adding that Taralinga is expect­ing its biggest year in terms of sales in 2020.

Boundary Bend has also expanded its oper­a­tions to California — though 65 per­cent of its olives are still grown in Australia under the Cobram Estate and Red Island labels.

The rel­a­tively high cost of labor in Australia and the fact that the indus­try is not sub­si­dized by the fed­eral gov­ern­ment can con­tribute to higher price tags on Australian olive oil, Isbaih said. He added that the qual­ity of olive oil made in the coun­try is help­ing to entice con­sumers world­wide to pick up bot­tles from Down Under.


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