At Cape Schanck Olive Estate, Weekend Getaway Grows Into Lauded Brand

Over 15 years, Stephen and Sui Tham turned their retreat from the hustle and bustle of city life into a multi-award winning olive oil brand.
Cape Schanck Olive Estate
By Lisa Anderson
Sep. 30, 2021 11:30 UTC

Australian pro­ducer Cape Schanck Olive Estates win­ning streak at the NYIOOC World Olive Oil Competition has been impres­sive.

The hus­band-and-wife team won five Gold Awards ear­lier this year after scoop­ing up four awards in the 2020 edi­tion of the indus­try’s most pres­ti­gious olive oil qual­ity con­test.

It looks easy, but it’s not easy. Farming is very tough.- Sui Tham, co-owner, Cape Schanck Olive Estate

This time around the duo, Stephen and Sui Tham, were awarded for their Picual, Picholine, Leccino, Coratina and Frantoio mono­va­ri­etals.

See Also:Producer Profiles

The cou­ple started cul­ti­vat­ing these five well-known vari­eties — all of which are native to Mediterranean coun­tries — when they started farm­ing olives 15 years ago.

Stephen Tham told Olive Oil Times they chose vari­eties that would ripen at dif­fer­ent times because they would not have been able to han­dle the pro­cess­ing of har­vest­ing them all simul­ta­ne­ously.

In 2002, the Thams decided to move to the coun­try­side to intro­duce their two sons, younger than 10 years old at the time, to a rural envi­ron­ment. They also wanted a retreat from city, them­selves.

Basically, we were look­ing for a healthy lifestyle out­side the city, as a get­away I sup­pose,” Tham said.

They found an aban­doned flower farm, which became Cape Schanck Olive Estate a few years later.


Harvesting olives on the estate

Initially, the Thams trav­eled to their farm on the week­ends to clean out the remain­ing flow­ers, irri­ga­tion pipes and plas­tic sheet­ing. A year later, they had their farm­house built.

The cou­ple next started look­ing for an endeavor to pur­sue over the week­ends, while they con­tin­ued to work in Melbourne, Australia’s sec­ond-largest city.

In 2006, based on the increas­ing pop­u­lar­ity of the Mediterranean diet, and the nature of their farm’s soil and its Mediterranean cli­mate, they decided to cul­ti­vate an olive grove after first con­tem­plat­ing becom­ing wine pro­duc­ers.

Sui Tham said the ben­e­fit of choos­ing olive farm­ing over grape farm­ing was that olive trees are more drought tol­er­ant than vines, and nature plays a big­ger role in tak­ing care of the groves.

Naming the farm was not easy. We thought very long and hard, but ulti­mately decided on a name that reflected a sense of where the farm was,“ Stephen Tham said.

See Also:After Years of Drought and Covid, Australians Celebrate Record-Breaking Harvest

They had no expe­ri­ence of olive farm­ing when they started out.

We learned as we went along,” he said. We had help from the locals, who were very gen­er­ous with their time and advice. We also joined the local Mornington Peninsula Olive Association, which was another great source of infor­ma­tion.”


Cobram Estate did the research,” Sui Tham said. They are very active in the indus­try. So to an extent, it’s an extended fam­ily. Cobram taught me to taste olive oil.”

In 2012, the awards started trick­ling in, with the Thams win­ning their first awards in Los Angeles for their Picholine and Leccino oils. Since then, they have won almost 70 awards at three com­pe­ti­tions, includ­ing the NYIOOC.


Sui Tham with NYIOOC president Curtis Cord at the 2016 NYIOOC

Getting Golds for all our five entries this year at NYIOOC was a thrill dif­fi­cult to beat,” Stephen Tham said, adding that the acco­lades made Cape Schanck a rec­og­niz­able brand, locally at least.”

The awards cer­tainly gen­er­ate inter­est with the con­sumers,” he added. In a crowded mar­ket­place, we feel it adds a point of dif­fer­ence to other oils.”


Tham attrib­uted their suc­cess to lots of time spent learn­ing from expe­ri­ence and indus­try experts.

Being hands-on from look­ing after the trees to pro­cess­ing the fruit [helped],” he said. Being con­nected to the con­sumers and locals within the com­mu­nity too. Realizing that we need to be respon­si­ble for the qual­ity of oil we pro­duce.”

Everything is done here on the farm, which some peo­ple don’t have the lux­ury to do,” Sui Tham added.

Explaining the oper­a­tional model of Cape Schanck, Stephen Tham said their team con­sists of them­selves and their farm man­ager.

During har­vest, ini­tially we had fam­ily and friends to help. However, lately, we have had to rely on casual local farmhands,” he said. My sis­ter from Queensland flies down each year with her hus­band dur­ing har­vest. It’s great hav­ing them, as they enjoy food and wine as much as we do.”

The press is man­aged by me and Sui assists,” he added. We fre­quently taste the oils dur­ing the press, mak­ing sure there are no defects. Sui is an olive oil judge and that greatly helps to have some­one with a good palate.”

Tham said their farm man­ager, who has been with them for 11 years, is respon­si­ble for the day-to-day run­ning and main­te­nance of the farm.

We think the mat­u­ra­tion of the grove over the years from knee-high plants to where we are now, has been a col­lab­o­ra­tive effort between us and our farm man­ager,” he said. It has been a con­stant learn­ing process with help from many in our neigh­bor­hood on the Mornington Peninsula, which is an area akin to Napa Valley in California, with many pas­sion­ate pri­mary pro­duc­ers.”

See Also:The Best Olive Oils From Australia

We try to adopt best prac­tices, from grow­ing to press­ing the olives and stor­age,” Tham added. Like most New World pro­duc­ers, we are not held back by tra­di­tion, and we will con­tinue to inno­vate and try to improve the qual­ity of the oil.”

Lately, we have been busy prun­ing the trees before the spring growth period and mulching the cut branches,” he con­tin­ued. Our next item on the list is to start look­ing at the irri­ga­tion.”

When asked if they would have done it all again with the ben­e­fit of hind­sight, the cou­ple started laugh­ing in uni­son. Probably not,” Stephen Tham said.

We did it part-time,” Sui Tham said. You need pro­fes­sion­als to do it. We vir­tu­ally learned on the job.”

It’s always easy when other peo­ple have done it,” she added. It looks easy, but it’s not easy. Farming is very tough.”

It’s a full-time busi­ness,” Stephen Tham explained. To do it well requires full-time atten­tion. We did it to turn aban­doned land into a pro­duc­tive farm, and have learned from expe­ri­ence that farm­ing is very much sub­jected to the vagaries of weather and cli­mate. But hav­ing started it, we are deter­mined to give it our best shot.”

We are com­mit­ted,” Sui Tham con­cluded.


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