Since agricultural activities were classified as an essential service when South Africa went into lockdown on March 27 due to COVID-19, the country’s olive growers were allowed to continue harvesting unhindered to a large extent.
The effective shutdown of the foodservice industry dried up our sales completely and creates uncertainty for sales volumes going forward.
The lockdown period that was initially supposed to last for three weeks, was then extended for another two, and then indefinitely, with restrictions relaxed incrementally since the start of May.
With the new regulations, this year’s olive harvest — which started in late-February — has been unlike any before.
Producers reported that the regulations resulted in fewer workers, uncomfortable personal protective equipment (PPE), additional costs relating to the purchases of new regulatory equipment and supplies, and a smaller market for their product due to restaurant closures.
Even with these complications, some growers have reported increases in yield from last year.
Nick Wilkinson, chairman of SA Olive, said some of the country’s producers were still busy harvesting, with most expected to finish at the end of June or early-July, and some at the start of August.
Wilkinson told Olive Oil Times South Africa’s yield “will certainly be up on last year — probably 40 percent — but it was “still too early to make an exact call.”See more: The Best South African Olive Oils
“Farmers have generally restricted workforce numbers,” he said, “and tried to maintain physical distancing as well as keep workers isolated on farms with limited visits to town for food.” (South Africans were only allowed to leave their homes to perform essential work and to buy necessary supplies during the first five weeks of the lockdown.)
“Other than the burden of extra paperwork to allow for staff movement, and the supply of protective gear and sanitizers along with awareness programs for workers,” Wilkinson said, “it has been business as usual with the exception of the more eastern areas in the drier parts of the Western Cape still struggling with ongoing water restrictions and drought.”
Goedgedacht, which is situated on the slopes of Kasteelberg near Riebeek-Kasteel north of Cape Town started, harvesting in March and is still in the process.
The managing director of Goedgedacht, Rob Templeton, told Olive Oil Times having their workers harvest with masks and maintain physical distancing “has been tough.”
“Trying to breathe through a mask when you have been working physically is a challenge,” he pointed out.
Templeton also highlighted the additional costs associated with Goedgedacht implementing additional sanitation measures, and purchasing perspex screens, regulatory PPE and floor-mounted sanitation stations.
He said Goedgedacht has had challenges with water as well.
“Our dams had just enough water to get our fruit to full maturation,” he said, “but because of the lack of water at the start of the harvest, we found that the trees were stressed and the fruit ripened quickly but was not ready for harvesting.”
But Templeton said that thus far their yield has increased by 30 percent from last year, which he ascribed to the addition of a new farm manager.
He said as Goedgedacht only has 37 hectares of olives, they also buy fruit from other South African growers. “Other farms who deliver have supplied us with world-class fruit and we have made some exceptional oils this year,” he said.
Marbrin Olive Farm in the Breede River Valley near Robertson started harvesting late-February and finished last week.
“The biggest problem was transport, bringing the people in and having to pay for two trips due to the legislation,” Marbrin marketing manager Briony Coetsee told Olive Oil Times. “Because of this we ended up with a smaller team and fewer people got work.”
Despite these obstacles, Coetsee reported an increase of “pretty much double tonnage of last year,” when they had no rainfall, but said they are still not achieving the yield they should.
She called the 2019 harvest an “awful crop” when frost during the critical blossoming time killed off “a large portion” of their blossoms.
Marbrin’s recovery was bedeviled, though, when the sale of their olives to their largest buyer fell through. They made the best of the situation by using the additional fruit for their own production in the end.
Rio Largo, in the Scherpenheuwel valley between Worcester and Robertson, started harvesting at the beginning of March and is busy wrapping up.
“Once again we have had a smaller harvest than we would have liked,” Brenda Wilkinson, who co-owns the estate with her husband Nick, said. “But the actual production went very smoothly.”
“I think the uncertainty of each week took its toll on all of us,” she told Olive Oil Times. “Troubled times and so much uncertainty.”
“The effective shutdown of the foodservice industry dried up our sales completely,” Wilkinson said, “and creates uncertainty for sales volumes going forward.”
The country’s restaurants were forced to close their doors from March 27 and have only recently been allowed to re-open gradually for takeaway only.
Many restaurants — especially upmarket venues — can’t afford to re-open because to-go orders alone can’t pay their rent, and some will have to close down permanently.
Wilkinson said they limited the number of workers employed during harvest, encouraging those living on the estate already to work with them.
“It was difficult to comprehend at first as no one around them was ill,” Wilkinson said of the workers.
Wilkinson said the weather was on their side, and they harvested under sunny skies with high daytime temperatures and no wind.
“They (the workers) could all get on with the picking and farm activities without trying to congregate around fires to keep them warm in the early mornings as before,” she explained.
“They loved being outdoors in this weather,” she said, “but as we near completion of this year’s harvest we would like to see some rain as we still have severe water restrictions after three years of drought and desperately need dams to fill this winter, as well as recharge the groundwater table.”
Philip King, manager of Mardouw Olive Estate in Swellendam, said they started harvesting in mid-March and finished just before the end of May.
“Transportation of workers was a challenge, as physical distancing was required,” he said, “which meant that more trips had to be done in the mornings and the afternoons.”
“We also requested that only two workers should harvest per tree, keeping the 1.5‑meter physical distancing at all times,” he said.
King said that in spite of these restrictions, this has been their second-best harvest ever.