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Spilling the good oil, when pressed

An unlikely headline grabber, the humble olive has been garnering attention recently for all the wrong reasons.

Rising prices internationally followed an almost unprecedented slump in production in some of the world’s biggest olive oil-producing nations. The shortage has been blamed on everything from drought to climate change. Whatever the cause, fans of the kitchen staple have been wringing their hands as they encounter half-empty [at best] supermarket shelves on the one hand, and substantial price hikes on the other.

Headlines from London to Auckland reflect the undeniable fact that the oil is becoming increasingly unaffordable. Spain, the world’s largest producer, has had dry weather, damaging the olive harvest for the past two years. Other large growing areas in Europe have been affected by drought and, in some instances, fires.

“Higher olive oil prices due to shortage,” a recent RNZ headline said. “Two years ago, a two-litre bottle of supermarket olive oil cost about £7. Step into your local branch today and that same bottle will set you back more than £16,” grumbled the UK’s Guardian. “Why thousands of Australians are giving up olive oil for good: ‘When did it get so expensive’,” complained Australia’s Daily Mail a few days ago.

With prices soaring and demand high, could this be an opportunity for our local growers?

While not a major player on the world stage, New Zealand punches above its weight on quality in the olive oil arena.

The Times-Age spoke to two high-end Wairarapa olive growers about what, if any, opportunities the current market presents.

Juno Olives, just outside Greytown, and Lot Eight in Martinborough are both key players locally. The owners of both agree New Zealand olive oil is of a consistently high standard. However, they also point out that the market for the type of oil produced by smaller, boutique growers here is probably different from the large-scale production model in other countries. In addition, New Zealand is not immune to climate-related challenges, with last year’s olive harvest here affected in particular.

That said, there could be growth opportunities for the local market in the future, if not right away.

Andy Liley and his wife Helen own and operate Juno Olives near Greytown. Andy, originally from the UK, is also a paediatric anaesthetist. He was attracted to olive oil production as much for its possible health benefits as for the opportunity to work closer to the land.

“I always wanted to have land and to grow stuff, to be in primary industry,” he said.

“Olive trees and olive oil – with a background in medicine, if you are going to grow anything that has health benefits, there it is.”

Juno has about four hectares under olives, with just under 1400 olive trees. The grove produced just under 2500 litres of oil in 2023.

“It’s not huge,” Liley said, adding that last year was not one of the best years.

“It was so wet last year. It was the same for everybody. The yields were universally low. There weren’t a lot of olives around in New Zealand.”

Although areas such as Spain, France, Italy Greece, and Tunisia produced between 30 and 50 per cent less than average for the past three years, he said, it will probably not immediately translate into bigger demand for New Zealand product.

“If you subscribe to the Olives New Zealand olive mark, as we do, they guarantee what’s in the bottle is extra virgin olive oil,” he said, although he has not noticed an uptick in demand.

“In part that reflects the current economic climate. Everybody is stretched. The price of New Zealand-produced olive oil is higher than what you can buy from Europe – just because we don’t have the same volume and scale.

“We can never really compete on price, because we don’t produce enough. Having said that, the quality is right up there.”

Nalini and Colin Baruch, owners and operators of award-winning Lot Eight olive grove in Martinborough, largely agree.

Lot Eight’s reserve extra virgin olive oil has consistently taken out top awards, including the gold award at Olives New Zealand in 2022 and 2023, reserve best in show in 2022, best in class in 2022 – and the list goes on, including wins at trade shows in Paris and New York.

They have run Lot Eight since 1997. In a good year, they can expect to produce as much as 80 tons of fruit. Like Juno, weather and other factors affected their production last year.

Oil produced offshore was not easily comparable with that produced locally, the couple noted.

“When it comes to extra virgin olive oil – and that is the business we are in – we are not really comparing apples with apples,” Nalini said.

“You only have to taste what’s on the supermarket shelves that is labelled extra virgin olive oil, and then do a taste test of New Zealand-produced extra virgin olive oil – you can immediately tell that they are not the same.”

New Zealand produces excellent extra virgin olive oil, Nalini said.

“It is of very high quality, which puts us almost in a category of our own. There is very little oil imported into this country that I believe sits at the same level. So, yes, there’s a shortage of oil in Europe, but I’m not sure whether we are comparing the same things here.

“The buyers that value true quality, high-end produced extra virgin olive oil will still look for New Zealand olive oil.”

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