Rod Lingard from Greytown’s The Olive Press and Helen Meehan of Olivo in Martinborough have a “longstanding relationship”. PHOTO/GIANINA SCHWANECKE

GIANINA SCHWANECKE

The Wairarapa olive harvest is under way and early signs are for more award-winning oils this year.

Helen Meehan of Olivo, just outside Martinborough, said work should begin on their 18th harvest next week.

Wairarapa’s oldest olive grove, it uses a mixture of mechanical and manual methods to harvest the six-hectare estate.

From there they go straight to The Olive Press in Greytown where they are processed and bottled.

“I like that I can follow the olives from after we’ve picked them right down to the olive press.”

She has a long-standing relationship with Rod Lingard chairman of the company which produces award-winning extra virgin olive oils for its shareholders, which include Wairarapa growers.

Two of its founders include the original owners of Olivo, Ian and Robin Lockie.

Meehan and Lingard have both been in the industry for close to 20 years and have seen some major changes during this time.

Both agree New Zealand olive oil is unique and are avid supporters of Olives New Zealand’s registered OliveMark scheme – it’s a certified guarantee that their extra virgin olive oils are grown, produced and bottled locally.

“When people have tried New Zealand olive oil, it’s hard to go back,” Meehan said.

Traceability is especially important to her as they export some of their olive oil to overseas markets in Hong Kong.

Meehan had also noticed an increased interest in Kiwis wanting to buy locally made olive oils since the country came out of lockdown, and it had been a busy few weekends since their cellar doors opened.

“There’s no way we can compete with the volume of countries like Spain, but we can compete in terms of quality and that’s where we should focus.”

Lingard said it was important for New Zealand producers to focus on quality over quantity, especially after seasons like these where Spain reported a bumper crop.

“We need to produce value and high quality above all else.”

The OliveMark was also important as some New Zealand producers bought oil from overseas and sold it under their own label, but this “diluted” the quality, he said.

“The quality factor is how we differentiate ourselves.”

Wairarapa was one of the best region’s for growing olives, Lingard said.

“The climate is ideal. Not too hot, not too cold.

“Olive growing in Wairarapa is a classic example of small-scale dryland horticulture at its best – once established, most groves don’t irrigate – which is why the region produces so many award-winning premium olive oils.”

This year production was up in many groves, although some varieties are presenting smaller fruit as a result of the drought.

Oil yields from early-ripening cultivars ranged from an average of 12 per cent for Barnea varieties up to 18 per cent for some batches of Frantoio.

There were challenges though, he said.

“One of the challenges we find in provincial New Zealand is finding a workforce on a seasonal basis.”

Issues of worker accommodation and employment law were equally difficult.

“The solution for us is the local winemakers.

“The vintage here dovetails neatly with the harvest for olives.”

The Olive Press was working with six winemaker ‘interns’ visiting from Europe.

He said they were well suited to the work as they came from a food safety background and understood the processes involved.

Meehan was also supportive of the move.

“I think they are very surprised by the similarities [between grape and olive growing].”

Olive and grape growers have a symbiotic relationship in Europe with one harvest season following the other.

In Wairarapa where wine growing land sells for a pretty penny, there is some competition for land use but olives can grow in poorer quality soils – just down the road from popular Martinborough wineries, Olivo has a layer of clay which makes it less suitable for grape growing.

Climate change on the distant horizon might also pose new challenges for producers.

Lingard said the country would likely be better off than Australian counterparts, but there was ongoing research into developing new varieties.

“The focus is on technology and sustainability. Our challenge is new olive groves.”

Most olive groves in New Zealand were planted during the 1990s or early 2000s so there was also potential for new development.

Biosecurity and protecting against plant diseases was also important.

Lingard has also been involved in research about improving waste management and bi-product development, though this is still a way off.