Kiwi olive growers facing tough times

Spain's olive oil industry has been hard hit by drought and disease, cutting world production.
MARCELO DEL POZO/REUTERS

Spain's olive oil industry has been hard hit by drought and disease, cutting world production.

Some olive growers in New Zealand will be thinking seriously about their future, after a wet winter has slashed the New Zealand crop by half.

Olives New Zealand's executive director Gayle Sheridan said wet, cloudy conditions had reduced the oil content in the fruit, and growers had been unable to let fruit ripen more fully because of frosts and hungry birds.

"They can clean out an olive grove in a matter of days," Sheridan said.

The upshot was that while quality was still high, local production had been slashed in half, severely curtailing the 400,000 litres of oil a year New Zealand normally produces.

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"In fact in some regions, growers had no harvest at all," Sheridan said. 

The New Zealand situation has been compounded by a global shortage which may raise the price of imported olive oil here by 10 per cent.

Southern European growers were grappling with drought and a bacteria which is destroying olive trees in Spain. Spain produces more than half the world's olive oil.

Sheridan said prices of local olive oil would probably stay the same because growers tended to take fluctuations in the market "on the chin".

But for the growers, it was "not good news".

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Boutique players might have reassess the cost of having their own brands, and decide to sell their fruit to bigger supermarket suppliers.

"I think some of them will think seriously as to whether this is the business to be in," she said.

"The cost of being a boutique grower in terms of storing the oil and getting it certified, bottling, labelling, marketing, all that sort of thing, it's just not going to be viable for them. So you might see some of those more boutique brands disappearing off the shelves."

There was one bright spot for smaller olive oil growers who sold at farmers markets..

"You might see those people sell out before next year's oil is available."

Sam Aitken, managing director of William Aitken & Co, which imports Lupi olive oil, said olives were a biennial plant, and a poor crop was usually followed by a bountiful crop the following year.

But because of the drought, Spain and Italy had been hit by two bad crops in a row.

He suggested Kiwis use imported oil judiciously.

"For example, use the more expensive extra virgin olive oil for dressings and flavour, and use pure or extra light olive oil for high temperature cooking."

 - Stuff

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