Olive trees have been grown for about 6000 years and olives have been a major calorie source in the Mediterranean for about 3000 years - hence were even more highly regarded than wine.
With the current global passion for healthy foods, saturated fats have become unpopular, and olives are an excellent source of mono-unsaturated fats. Olive oil reduces the risk of heart disease, and is said to prevent skin and breast cancer.
New Zealanders use twice as much olive oil as they did five years ago and we now import 20 million dollars worth of oil each year. This provides a huge incentive to produce our own olives and we can produce fresh green oil that can be sold, not only in New Zealand, but in niche overseas markets during the northern hemisphere off season period. The quality of New Zealand olive oil is extremeley high.
The markets for good quality olive oil are very much like those for good wines. Today many restaurants are selling bread and olive oil as an appetiser, as well as using fine olive oils in cooking and this trend is rapidly moving to the home. New Zealand brands are now appearing alongside the finest olive oils from around the world.
Olive oil is used in the production of soaps and is used extensively in the cosmetic industry.
The average yield of trees in New Zealand is about three tons per acre - at today's prices about $6000. Some of the trees in Marlborough have been yielding twice that amount, about 60kg per tree or more. The Tuscan olive varieties start producing after three years with full production after seven or eight years.
First you have to be able to grow them and quite simply not everywhere is suitable. Though olives cope with minus 10 degree frosts, for safe olive growing it pays to be in the region of minus 6 or 7 winter low. Not many places are that mild on the Canterbury plans or for that matter the Waipara Basin and many areas can get significant winter frost that will damage ripening fruit. From Amberley / Leithfield and out to the beach seems fine, anybody trying to grow olives in this area have had few problems even though they are on heavy soils. Glasneven to Waipara, Broomfield and Omihi flats all have the growing heat units you could ever want but unfortunately gets colder than –7°C so you would have problems. Waipara West, Waipara Downs and the North hill of Omihi where there is good frost drainage are fine.
Well the first question people seem to ask is, "Is there money in olives?" Well I don’t think it has been done yet but it would be fair to say that commercial scale (20 plus acres) olive groves are only a maximum of 7 years old or even less. If you are growing olives in a traditional Italian way you can probably kiss goodbye to the first 6 or seven years anyway. Picking your olives by hand and growing a traditional olive grove is going to make it difficult to compete with present growers. On the other had you are going to have some spectacular olive oil at home, and that is something quite significant to the palate and well worth having.
To be a successful and profitable olive grove you have to plan to not do any work.
It has to be done with the minimum of input, Roundup, a grape harvester, hedge trimmers and the bare minimum of pest spraying all done very intensively so you get good quick, early profitable returns, you can’t afford to wait for 7 years. But nobody is doing that yet, most people are aiming to have a pretty olive grove that is manicured and well mown and there is nothing wrong with that, but I’m not sure how profitable it will be. The olive industry has just begun and there is every reason to believe we will be better than the traditional Europeans.
Also sold as Super, Gidien and Allenton. This variety was brought into the country in 1945 by Charlie Whiting, as seed from Trieste in Northern Italy, which is higher than 45 degrees latitude. Of the three seeds he planted only one was to grow. 62 years on it is a pretty big tree growing and fruiting in the middle of Ashburton, not one of the mildest places in NZ. It is very similar to Frantoio, which seems to be resistant to peacock spot, is self fertile, has a high oil content and is a frost hardy variety in New Zealand’s climate. It seems to be the most site tolerant variety and is the easiest to grow. It has produced Gold Medal winning oils and blends.
Frantoio (Italy; oil) Coming from Tuscany it is one of Italy's most commercial varieties. Recognized as producing one of the world's great olives for the quality and flavour of its oil. This variety has produced a light to medium crop for the last two seasons. If it does crop well, and it should, this could well be one of the most important olive trees for NZ. The flavour it generates is what has made it's oil so sought after in Italy. It is frost hardy although it does not demand low chilling for fruit set. It is suitable for both modern and traditional farming. Not as resistant to peacock spot but time proven over and over again.
Leccino (Italy; oil) Quality and production is similar to Frantoio. In Blenheim the tree is more vigorous than Frantoio, but produced a light crop over the last two seasons. Has a naturally low acid level, and a stronger flavour than Frantoio. This cultivar is one of the most frost hardy, although it does not demand low chilling for fruit set, being similar to Frantoio. Has poor quality pollen so benefits from Pendolino to provide the extra pollen to assist fruit set. Needs to be harvested before colour change, as the oil quality quickly deteriorates.
This is a self fertile, oil variety. It grows into a darling little tree that covers itself in masses of fruit. The oil quality of this olive is fantastic. Ideal olive for hedging, or as a lower growing specimen tree.