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Sarah Bradshaw on her 'Bend in the River' olive grove at Ngatimoti.











Rob Sheridan on his hill top section overlooking Ruby Bay.
















Ruby Bay Olives owner Wendy Whitehead with manager Mark Lowe on their Biogro certified grove.




Growing olives for the love of it

By Rick Coleman

As more people grow olives, and their groves mature, the pool of knowledge surrounding the successful production of the crop becomes clearer. People grow olives for many reasons, and for smaller block owners, making money is sometimes low on the priority list.

David Lockwood has grown apples for over forty years on Kina Peninsula near Tasman, growing the early cox's orange, granny smith, red and golden delicious apple varieties, gradually changing over to the newer varieties of braeburn, fuji and the royal gala. Today he has seized the opportunities offered by property development in this rapidly growing region. For him, olives are part of that development.

"I've always grown things, and I can see in olives that you can grow a reasonable number of trees on a block of land with very little upkeep timewise, therefore they fit in very well with semi-retirement, or with someone working off the property. With crops like apples there is a lot more time involved with it, certain aspects you have to do at the right time. But the majority of it (the olives) is for the appearance of the land, rather than the dollars. Mainly because of the aesthetics, and the fact that as a horticultural crop they are relatively free of labour hassles and time frames."

David planted 100 olive trees in February, and another 250 three weeks ago of the frantoio, leccino, pendolino and manzanilla varieties adding that it is therefore too early to pin point any significant problems but advises people not to spend money unless you have it to spare. "From a horticultural background, I don't think there is quick money in it."

This piece of advice was backed up by Ngatimoti olive grower Sarah Bradshaw who since 1996 has planted 1,450 olive trees covering 10 acres of their 30 acre Bend In The River property, alongside the Motueka River. Inspiration for the olive grove developed in the late 1980's early 1990's after spending five years in Tuscany, Italy restoring an overgrown olive grove. It inspired them to return to New Zealand and establish a small grove themselves, importing 1,000 original trees from Italy, and growing, cultivating and on selling some.

Regarding the economics of the enterprise Sarah quipped with a healthy laugh, "get another job - to bring home the bacon, or tofu as we say. Don't expect quick results, there is a lot of hard graft really," she advised. The biggest problems they have found is weed control and humidity, exacerbated somewhat by a strong commitment to their organic Biogro status. "Our high rainfall increases the humidity, increasing the incidence of the fungal disease peacock spot. We do use a little bit of copper, but there is a limit to how much we can use, and eventually we won't be able to use it. And weed control has been our big issue - I've spent about four years on a brush cutter."

Robert Sheridan and Jane Kinsey have been on their one-acre property in Pomona Road, Ruby Bay, for just over a year, and decided to plant olives on their hill top sloping section, purchasing and transplanting established 3 year old trees from an organic grower in the Moutere. They are growing seven varieties of olives on their mainly clay soils, initially planting 130 and later another 50 from an established local nursery.

"It is just the romance of the olive tree - and the opportunity." Robert described. "Our parents are doing it over in Marlborough with 5,000 trees, but we thought if we could get enough oil for ourselves, it would be a neat little cottage industry. We went to the local library and got out several books on it, of which some were local books, and read about it. And made lots of disastrous errors afterwards," Robert explained enthusiastically. "The biggest being - don't transplant big trees. Basically the bigger they were the worse they did, the smaller they were the better they did. We just consider them all one year old trees now, so overall we aren't doing too badly."

"We have learnt more afterwards, visiting olive groves and talking to other growers, and it is important to pick what grows well in your local area, and here it's definitely the frantoio that are doing well. But we are not out there to make money or be commercial producers, it's just for fun, and hopefully look pretty neat in years to come."

Ruby Bay Olives owner Wendy Whitehead has 15 acres of mainly sandy soil next to the sea, of which 10 acres have been planted with 1,350 olives trees since 1998-1999. All in the Tuscan cultivars of frantoio, leccino and pendolino. "The main reason was taste, when I thought about what varieties I was going to put in here, I thought about oils, the oils you buy. And they are always associated with the Italians. Spanish and Greek olives are mainly the eating variety. I knew the flavour was going to be the most important thing with the end product."

Wendy explained that they might have been able to get a crop off the trees this year - but the birds got them, and there was probably not yet enough to get pressed on their own, and they would have combined their crop with other organic growers. Like all the growers spoken to, they anticipate using the services of Olive Services Nelson to press their crop.

Achieving Biogro status has meant being innovative in their approach to the perennial problem of weed suppression around the base of the trees, which are sensitive to growth suppressive substances released by many grasses. Grove manager Mark Lowe described a number of mulching techniques used which mainly involve newspaper held down with a variety of mulches of manures, cardboard, carpet and more recently mussel shells. "We are trying to suppress the weeds as much as possible," Mark said. "The newspaper is quite effective, but obviously you have to renew it, and at the moment that's every six months. Using manure tends to speed up the breakdown of the paper and encourages the growth of the weeds. We have found the mussel shells are more inert and some have lasted up to a year now."

Like others, Wendy was attracted to the romantic notion of an olive grove, and in hindsight the incorrect assumption of their relatively labour free nature. "I can still remember the really nice feeling after planting our very own block of olive trees. The dove, the symbol of peace, and trees that you know are going to last for hundreds of years. They'll have an effect on this environment for hundreds of years, and that's a nice feeling."