Olives Focus Grove Project

May 2020

Increasing market share of New Zealand grown olive oil

Leafyridge Olives is one of a number of olive growers and oil producers that are involved in the Focus Grove Project, a programme aiming to increase the market share of olive oil in New Zealand. Progress to date has been extremely encouraging following an initial three-year programme, and further work is about to begin on a follow-up programme with an increased range of olive producers and aims.

Olives New Zealand is working towards increasing the market share of New Zealand grown and produced olive oil through projects backed by the Sustainable Food and Fibres Futures programme. Gayle Sheridan is executive officer of ONZ. According to that organisation’s website (www.olivesnz.org.nz), around 4 million litres of olive oil is consumed annually in New Zealand. Of this, less than 10% is produced in New Zealand.

It was identified there was an opportunity for local growers to improve on this, as while there are more than 350,000 trees capable of producing around 1 million litres of oil, current production figures are less than a third of that. The appetite for New Zealand Extra Virgin Olive Oil (NZ EVOO) continues to grow as consumers appreciate the freshness and flavor that local oil producers are achieving, and that is also being recognised internationally.

The challenges facing producers are production and cost structures. The key factors affecting production are biennial fruit bearing, climate and disease.

The first Focus Grove Project was run from July 2016 to March 2019. It was extremely effective in identifying grove management practices that raised production while reducing costs. It also provided, for the first time in New Zealand, a benchmark against which production and progress could be measured.

The groves involved in the programme (and others following the same methodologies) lifted production consistently to an average of 25kg per tree. The project target had been 15kg. The production average at the beginning of the project was less than 10kg per tree.

The goals of the new Focus Grove Project that began in October 2019 are to lift tree production further to 30kg per tree, investigate ways to reduce the intensity of the spray programme and look at disease control options for organic producers. Supplementary aims are; to collate reliable and accurate information to be made available to current and future oil producers, as well as table olive production and export potential.

Five Focus Groves have been established in each of the main growing regions (Northland, Hawke’s Bay, Wairarapa, Nelson and Canterbury).

Leafyridge Olives located near Masterton is one of the Focus Groves. They produce extra virgin olive oil, infused olive oils and olive tree firewood from the prunings. The grove was established in 1999 and has over 6,000 trees of a number of varieties from Italy, France and Spain.

Harvest occurs in June and July each year. The olives are pressed the same day, ensuring minimal damage to the fruit. Leafyridge has won a number of awards for their oil, and their product carries the Olives New Zealand Red Olive Mark Certification label (confirming the oil meets the requirements of Extra Virgin Olive Oil specified by the International Olive Oil Council).

Craig and Ruth Leaf-Wright were selected (as were all the Focus Groves) on the basis of their commitment to current best practices and who are prepared to host 2 field days each year, as well as trialling and implementing the new approaches and measuring the outcomes. Another grove using an alternate (more or entirely organic) approach has been identified in each region to compare management and outcomes.

The project is being funded through the Sustainable Food and Fibres Future programme and Olives NZ members, with additional, in-kind costs contributed by the Focus (and other) Groves. Craig says it has been a significant time and financial commitment from those involved in the project, but he sees it as critical work for the good of the industry in New Zealand.

Assistance has been contributed by Plant & Food Research Fruit Crop Physiologist, Dr Stuart Tustin, who has done a significant amount of work in New Zealand’s pipfruit industry.

A combination of canopy and disease management, along with a good understanding of nutrient requirements appear to be the most important factors affecting production in New Zealand. The first focus grove project demonstrated that controlling the fungal diseases that olives are susceptible to plays a huge role in determining eventual production outcomes. Regular spray programmes to combat defoliating diseases such as Cercospora and Peacock Spot enable trees to produce healthy fruit.

Future plans for the industry include:

Understanding nutrient requirements of olive trees in New Zealand, to further increase production.
Determining how crop load and tree canopy management can sustain reliable annual yields.
Benchmarking the effectiveness and sustainability of alternate and organic grove management.
Establishing an effective regime to manage diseases in olive grove, particularly the recently identified Anthracnose (that causes yield loss due to blossom rot in spring, and mature fruit rot at harvest).

MPI - Ministry for Primary Industries

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