Growers toil to yield the good oil
Ed Scott is in manic mode.
Plastic crates of freshly picked olives are stacking up outside his press and require his attention. He jumps off his tractor and hurries in to check how processing is going, emerging a few minutes later with his moustache stained from the virgin oil he has just sampled.
He was up until 1am feeding the latest lot of fruit through, and faces another long day as the mechanical harvester shakes off tonnes more from his 4500-tree grove near Neudorf. With an expected crop of 40 to 50 tonnes – almost double last year's total – he will be flat out processing the harvest until the end of this week.
Then follows several weeks of filtering, testing and tasting and allowing the oil to settle before blending begins next month. The first of his range of organic oils, marketed under the Moutere Grove label, won't be ready for sale until September.
But the affable Mr Scott likes what he has so far tasted.
Despite a wet autumn leaving much of the fruit waterlogged and with a lower oil percentage than normal, he is confident of producing oil at least as good in quality as previous years. Better weather during the past week has boosted oil content and the lack of frosts has been a boon.
"In the past frost has meant we've had to leave some oil out of the blend and use it for other purposes like cosmetics, but all this is going to be food grade and top notch.
"It's looking promising and I am pretty enthusiastic about it."
Which is just as well, because this year he will produce more than 6000 litres of oil. He concedes it will be something of a challenge to sell.
A little of it will be exported to regular customers in the United States and hopefully to India and Singapore, where he gained a foothold last year.
However, most of it will be sold domestically, where he has been working hard to get it into South Island supermarkets, in particular.
After 15 seasons of growing olives, he reckons he might just make his first profit this year if he can sell all his bigger crop, most of which is from leccino and frantoio varieties.
A mechanical shaker – which Nelson growers have hired from the North Island owner for the harvest – had proved a great help, he said, enabling his fruit to be picked more quickly, cheaply and in better condition than if done by hand.
It was taking up to 18 kilograms of fruit off some trees, and unlike hand-held shakers, "what comes off goes in the net and doesn't fly all over the place".
Apart from leaving a bit of a mess in the wetter parts of his grove, it had more than justified the cost and made the harvest more efficient, although it was a struggle to keep up as he could only process five tonnes a day, Mr Scott said.
John Dunlop is another who says the shaker has proven its worth, although the heavier fruit would cost growers more to process as the cost was based on weight.
He and his wife, Helen, are about two-thirds the way through harvesting 3000 trees on their 11-hectare block in Redwood Valley. They expect their oil to be less intense this year because the rain before harvest has raised the water content in fruit and lowered oil yields.
"They will still have plenty of flavour but not that in-your-face intensity.
"I'm reasonably confident there will be plenty of gold medals coming out of Nelson this year."
They were also making headway in growing the local and domestic market for oil. "If we can get 2000 to 3000 people in Nelson to buy five litres each a year, that's the whole of the Nelson crop sold."
The Dunlops sell half of their oil themselves at markets or at the farm gate under the Kakariki Olives label, with the rest going to the grower-owned group Nelson Olives which markets its Oriwa brand oil to supermarkets and other retail outlets. Mr Dunlop is a director of Nelson Olives, which this year expects to produce about 4000 to 5000 litres of oil from four growers.
Rather than use their own press to process, they have opted for a bigger one owned by Roger Armstrong of Tasman Bay Olives, Nelson's biggest grower and chairman of the local branch of Olives New Zealand.
Mr Dunlop said the size of their crop, along with the "vagaries of the weather", no longer justified the relatively high cost of using their own press, "so we've decided not to crank it up and see how it goes putting everything through Roger's press".
Mr Armstrong said the move made sense because it streamlined harvesting in the region and made better use of his press, which was operating 24 hours a day at present and would process between 160 to 180 tonnes of fruit, about 70 per cent of the region's crop. With the mechanical harvester rotating around the region, it had given growers greater flexibility in handling their crops, which were 20 per cent up on last year.
The increase came not so much from increased plantings, but from maturing groves and good growing conditions, he said. "Last year was an average to slightly off year, but this year we had a good fruit set and up until the rain [in autumn] everything was going well."
While the soaked fruit would cost more to process, oil quality shouldn't be affected, although flavours were likely to be milder. `They may not have so much of a bang to them that you get in a dry year, but they should be very nicely balanced."
Mr Armstrong, who owns or manages groves totalling 15,000 trees, said there were encouraging signs that with local consumption rising growers would be able to sell their production more easily.
"We are getting far more repeat orders because it's not so expensive as it once was. And once they have tried local oil they don't go back to the others and it sells itself."