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Top olive oil producer is on a mission

After a disappointing harvest, the country’s top olive oil producer – The Olive Press – is putting in the hard yards to rejuvenate the lower North Island’s olive groves in preparation for early summer flowering.

The Olive Press chairman Rod Lingard told the Times-Age the company is working hard to redouble its efforts to improve olive tree productivity and grove health through an expanded spring pruning programme.

“Poor flowering last year followed by a very wet autumn this year resulted in our smallest fruit crop and lowest oil yields in over 20 harvests,” Lingard said.

“It’s been a tough lesson for growers used to bountiful harvests, but it’s also helped reinforce the need to improve grove resiliency, so the trees are better able to cope with these challenges”.

Lingard said the adverse weather events in the past few years have created a sense of urgency within the olive industry.

Harvesting olives in the rain is not ideal due to the moisture and olives becoming full of water – reducing the olive oil’s quality and quantity.

“Never mind the looming threat of climate change, we’re more concerned with the here and now – that after three years of a historically wet La Niña, we face the prospect of an El Niño weather pattern predicted to be the driest and windiest in more than 40 years,” he said.

Lingard is encouraging olive growers looking to increase their “grove resiliency” to “manage the olive tree’s tendency to vigorous growth regardless of a wet or dry climate”.

“It may seem counter-intuitive, but to produce abundant, healthy olives, the focus needs to be on smaller trees with open centres,” Lingard said.

“Ultimately, the goal should be to achieve a sustainable balance between each tree and its surrounding grove ecosystem, which is one reason we mulch olive prunings straight back into the soil.”

Lingard believes regularly reshaping and removing big scaffold branches is beneficial for helping lift the tree’s productivity, because gradually lowering tree height and opening canopies to aid light penetration and airflow is essential for better leaf health, flower pollination, and fruit set.

“Olive groves have specific pruning requirements, so we’ve employed qualified olive specialists from Argentina to lead our grove management team this year and to train up our two young Māori olive cadets.”

Lingard said the team has already worked hard to rejuvenate six commercial groves across the Kāpiti Coast and Wairarapa and has eight groves booked to be pruned.

“Although the team’s made great progress through this recent spell of settled weather, a rapid shift to an El Niño weather pattern could also lead to early flowering, so we have no time to waste. The race is on this spring to have our key groves pruned and mulched well before they bloom”.

    To find out more about The Olive Press, theolivepress.co.nz.

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