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Olinomics: the economics of olives in agriculture

09 Dec 2016

Olives – while currently the flavour of gastronomic fashion – can be an expensive investment with high production costs and fierce competition in the markets. But super-high-density (SHD) planting – together with the canny brilliance of drip irrigation – can greatly reduce harvest costs. Are olives worth the effort? History says yes, and certainly people have become passionate about the health benefits of olive oil. So the demand is not going away anytime soon.

There has been upward growth in the industry in South Africa – particularly due to the fall in Spanish production. South Africa’s native olive cultivar, the wild olive (Olea africana), is inedible, but at least 20 different imported olive cultivars are grown locally. Olive trees prefer a dry climate and are hardy plants, adaptable in a variety of soil types.

Olives are a long-term project but promise worthwhile returns in the long-run. The primary olive producing areas in South Africa are in the Karoo region of the Western Cape, which boasts favourable conditions and climate for olive growing with winter rainfall and a dry summer.

South African olive industry set to grow

Raising olives

  • Olive trees are shallow-rooted, long-lived and evergreen, and can live up to a 1,000 years old.
  • They are prone to alternate-year bearing because the fruit is borne on wood grown the year before. Sometimes a tree may lack the resources to produce good new wood, resulting in a light crop the following year.
  • Olives are largely self-fruitful, but the presence of pollinator trees can improve fruit set. This is particularly important when weather conditions are less than optimum; certain varieties should always have pollinators.
  • Olive trees are tough and can be grown in areas unfavourable to other plants. They prefer warmer climates with moderate to fairly dry conditions, with effective soil drainage; one thing they do not respond well to, is “wet feet”.
  • Drip irrigation is the perfect way to grow olives, allowing exactly the right amount of moisture to the roots when needed.
  • High-density spacing is now the norm with trees planted 8 to 20 feet apart, and rows spaced 16 to 24 feet apart. This system is suitable for any variety. But even with high-density spacing, full production is only reached after 8 to 10 years.

The virgin value  

Olives, once harvested, need to be processed quickly. Good fruit, harvested at the right time and promptly processed, makes good oil. Extra-virgin olive oil is the highest quality olive oil with the best flavour, and is produced from the first cold pressing of the olives and pits. Cold pressing means that neither heat nor chemicals are used in the production process.

This produces an unrefined oil – which is the highest-quality olive oil you can buy. Because of the very specific process, extra-virgin olive oil retains more true olive taste, and has a lower level of oleic acid. It also contains more of the natural vitamins and minerals found in olives. Typically, it has a golden-green color, with a distinct flavor and a light peppery finish.

Virgin olive oil is made in the same way, but is the next step down, but production standards are not as rigid. It is rarely found in stores, regular light olive oil being preferred for cooking and baking. The more sought-after extra-virgin olive oil is the high quality stuff that we like to use for dipping, dressings, cold dishes, etc.

Making olives while the sun shines

Within a few decades, South African olive oil has equalled, and in many instances exceeded the quality of oils produced by nations like Spain, Greece and Italy. There are a number of reasons for this:

  • The South African olive industry is completely unsubsidised.
  • Local olive growers voluntarily self-regulate their industry and are motivated by passion as much as commercial necessity.
  • The international industry is fraught with cheap, poorly blended imitation oils that have been mis-labelled and even subjected to chemical manipulation.
  • Olive oil lovers appreciate the value-for-money, healthy properties of South African olives which produce a uniquely flavoured and authentically characterised extra-virgin olive oil.

Netafim and olive farming – perfect partners

At Netafim we understand the pitfalls of growing produce in dry climates. Not only do we understand the soil types, the water requirements, and a farmer’s economic constraints – but we understand the vision. That’s why we are constantly working on technological innovation. We have solutions for all kinds of trees – and we know water – and what is just the right amount for your orchard. Money doesn’t grow on trees – it grows through the steady application of invention, knowledge and intelligent choices.

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