Awatere Olives

July 2009

Former dairy farmers switch to grapes and olive production

A look at a former diary farming couple who are tackling the challenges of growing olives and marketing the oil in what are tough times for the industry.

Mark and Phyllis Heard were diary farming at Galatea. The family had a history in the district. They had 280 odd cows. In what Mark describes as a bit of a mid-life crisis, the couple moved to Marlborough in 1996 and bought a 60 ha block, where they grow grapes and olives.

The property has around 7000 olive trees spread out over about 20 ha. There’s a bit over 33 ha in grapes – a mixture of sav blanc and pinot noir.

The grapes are grown on contract to a large wine maker. ( Delegats )

Grapes have been a much better earner than olives in the last few years and Mark has pulled out around 3000 olive trees to make more room for grapes.

The couple grow a fair range of varieties of olives. The trees that were pulled were largely Barnea – which is an Israeli variety which had failed to produce good flavoured oil on this site.

They have invested in an expensive olive harvester – which is owned by their business and is used by their son – who contract harvests around the region.

The recommended time for harvesting is when the fruit is at optimum maturity. This varies around the country and from cultivar to cultivar. Unfortunately olives do not ripen uniformly on the tree and in the traditional olive-growing regions olives are usually harvested when the skin of most fruit is black and the flesh is violet-coloured half way to the stone. The remaining olives will varying degrees lighter. At this level of maturity, there should be good yields of high-quality oil. This depends on the olive variety

Another worry – especially this year is the risk of early frosts. Olives are sensitive to frost damage and the oil quality will be affected if frosted olives are processed. No worries for us in our location

Mark and Phyllis are shareholders and Mark a director, along with Seresin Estate and others, of this new co-op set up to process the Marlborough olive crop.

This year about 60 per cent of the district’s olives will be processed at a new 240-square-metre purpose built building at the Riverlands Industrial Estate.

Marlborough Olive Press Limited is owned by a consortium of about 28 growers. It has an olive press which it bought from another processor in the district back in 2007.

Mark says the idea is to keep the processing capability in the region. It is run along co-op lines – and no dividend is paid. Shareholder growers simply have the right to have a tonnage that corresponds to their shareholding processed at the special shareholder rate.

Currently some of the local crop is purchased by the Village Press and shipped to Hawkes Bay for processing.

The machine washes, pulverises and separates oil from about 300 kilogram of fruit an hour which equates to about 50 litres of olive oil.

Early this harvest, about 150 tonnes of olives had been booked in to use the press, but he expected more than 200 tonnes will have been processed when the season ends in July.

Because the New Zealand industry is not regulated, it is difficult to obtain accurate production figures but according to Olives New Zealand (ONZ ) annual production figures might sit at around 190,000 litres of extra virgin olive oil.

Mark and Phyllis have a label – “Awatere River” – and about 3 or 4 years ago made a bit of a breakthrough with a number of New World supermarkets taking their oil. Mark admits that this side of the business has been hard. There have been a number of hoops to jump through – including rigorous food safety programme – and the fickle and ruthless side of this sort of business. There are also gate sales and Awatere River Oil can be bought at Moore Wilsons.

In general terms Mark believes the industry suffers from a lack of co-ordinated marketing. He’s the out going Marlborough branch chairman of Olive New Zealand and reckons that despite the fact NZ olive oil keeps on winning awards in international competitions the industry has yet to capitalise on that reputation with international orders.

He is quoted as saying that the industry needs marketing expertise and investment.

Mark’s idea is that rather than the fractured industry of the present we should be combining forces and tackling the Italians and Spanish with a NZ brand.

Olives New Zealand is preparing a referendum to see if growers would be prepared to accept a commodity levy – which may be a step in this direction if spent wisely on an aggressive marketing campaign.