Branching out into olives

Branching out into olives

Horticulture
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Whirlwind Olives is a fitting name for a small farming operation, which happened "more by chance than plan".

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Imre, Andrew and Sue Mencshelyi of Whirlwind Olives at Margaret River.

Imre, Andrew and Sue Mencshelyi of Whirlwind Olives at Margaret River.

OLIVE harvest kicked into gear this month and some growers in the South West finished picking their crops last week.

Among those getting busy is the Mencshelyi family, owners and operators of Whirlwind Olives, on eight hectares of land at Margaret River.

Whirlwind Olives is a fitting name for a small farming operation, which happened "more by chance than plan".

In the early 2000s, Imre and Sue Mencshelyi were looking for a property for when they were ready to hang up their corporate boots and started hunting for a property in the South West.

Mr Mencshelyi is a former chief executive officer of CBH.

Little did the couple know, retirement would spawn a new venture after they purchased a young olive farm near Margaret River.

The Mencshelyi's son Andrew said the family spent 18 months looking for land until they were presented with an opportunity "too good too miss".

"This just came along and it happened to have 2500 olive trees on it," Andrew said.

"We didn't know anything about olives.

"But we purchased the property and that's when the journey and steep learning curve began."

In the earlier days, the Mencshelyis would recruit family and friends to help them harvest olives by hand over two days before carting them to someone else's olive press to be processed.

They even travelled as far as Bunbury and York to do so.

As the family's production increased, they realised they needed more than a weekend to pick the crop, which led to the investment of more mechanical harvesting techniques and hiring labour.

Then they invested in their own processing facility so they could press the fruit onsite.

Andrew said with no background in olive farming the family "just rolled with it" and the business has evolved over time because of that.

He said 1500 trees on the property were for oil varieties including WA Mission and Paragon, whereas Kalamata and Californian Queens made up the remaining 1000.

WA Mission is described as a milder and smoother fruit, whereas Paragon has more bite to it.

Olives are processed within 24 hours of being picked to maximise the oil quality.

Olives are processed within 24 hours of being picked to maximise the oil quality.

Olives are processed within 24 hours of being picked to maximise the oil quality.

"As soon as it is picked from the tree it starts to oxidise and it starts to break down," Andrew said.

"It is just like any fruit that's been picked, if you leave it in your fruit bowl it is going to go rotten.

"When the olives sit in the 400 kilogram crates they start to oxidise and give off heat.

"What happens is if you leave that for over a day, especially if it is a warm day, the actual oil that is in those olives starts to go off, which you don't want.

"You want to process them as quickly as possible.

"We don't put them in a cool room, it is straight off the tree, brought down to the shed, processed and the oil is extracted through the cold press - the rule of thumb is to do it within 24 hours."

Olive harvest typically starts in April and May, depending on where the farm is located.

For Whirlwind Olives, harvest runs for about two weeks and uses a mix of mechanical harvesters and labour.

The two main harvesting methods include the shaker and the pneumatic or electric rakes.

As the name suggests, the shaker shakes the tree with an umbrella attachment around it, which catches the olives as they fall off, while the pneumatic or electric rakes require manual labour.

"We did trial the shaker, but it didn't work satisfactorily enough in that trial," Andrew said.

"I think it was a combination of the machine, the technology at the time and climate.

"The climate when we did this trial was a lot wetter.

"We would get a lot more rain and the olive stalks were still green, so it was very hard to shake the tree and knock the olive off when they have still got quite a green stalk.

"Whereas now, in the past five years it seems to be a lot drier."

Andrew said picking table olives was more labour intensive, as mechanical rakes could not be used because they bruised the fruit, however they were fine to use for olive oil as the olives would be crushed on the same day they are picked.

"You want to keep the integrity of the fruit, so we literally pick them one by one.

"We brine the fruit for six to 12 months in salt water to take the bitterness out of it , then we take them out, wash them and either marinate or package them or leave them in the brine.

"There is a lot of work involved but you get out there and you do it and the brining gives us supply all year round.

"Olives actually taste better the longer they are in the brine."

The Mencshely's plan to revisit the shaking method in the future and are going to continue using backpackers and electric rakes in the meantime.

"We will hire eight pickers during harvest, four teams of two," Andrew said.

"Two of them will pick a tree at a time each side.

"The aim is, in a good year, they will pick three to four tonne in a 10-hour day.

"We don't work any longer because we don't process at night due to the load on the power network, which is night-time dominant."

As it is with any crop, there are factors, which could impact olive groves and knock the yield around, ahead of harvest, including birdlife, management practices, weather and water.

For example, Andrew said if the red gums didn't flower in the national park birds "smash the vineyards and olive groves looking for food".

And that is something growers cannot prepare for, as they don't know when it could happen.

In terms of management practices, Andrew said yields could vary if growers prune heavily one year and then the subsequent year was light.

"After pruning the tree will focus on growing new branches rather than fruiting, but then the year after you will get a heavy crop.

"There are lots of different factors, a lot of them are out of your control, but some of them within you control.

"We irrigate, so as long as we fill our dams up over winter, water we can get out of there, that is one thing we can control in most years."

This harvest's crop is shaping up to have mixed results across the board with some varieties looking "really good" and others looking "not so good".

One of the stronger crops will be the Kalamata, but Andrew said the lower yielding crops could be setting themselves up for a big year next year.

To help maximise their yields, Whirlwind Olives is participating in a regenerative farming training program through the lower Blackwood Catchment Development Commission.

Andrew said it was about looking at farming from a "holistic point of view" and while his family's operation was technically not organic certified, they did follow the practices.

"It is about looking at everything from nutrition, water, pruning, microbes, bacteria and fungi, biodiversity, soil health and looking at it from a holistic perspective to really make those trees as healthy as possible," he said.

"We are introducing more animals into the cycle, so we are running sheep throughout groves.

"But we will probably rotate some more free range chickens through our farm and trees, so those natural manures improve the soils.

"We are just going to start doing more and more of that."

Andrew said not just any sheep could be used in the groves because many sheep varieties would ringbark the trees and do more damage than good.

Also, wool producing sheep were not suitable because the winters were too wet and there was too much vegetable matter and no shearing facilities.

After researching what varieties would be best for the groves the Mencshelyis settled with Wiltshire Horns, before they switched to Wiltipolls.

"The horned sheep can get quite aggressive in the yard," Andrew said.

"We moved into Wiltipolls and that's what we essentially run now.

"Production has never really been a problem in the past, we always said 'What the crop will be, the crop will be' and we will focus on selling it.

"Now we have to maximise this production every year, we have got to the point where we are selling what we produce.

"We don't have any problems with processing capacity."

In terms of expanding on the business, the Mencshelyis are looking to continue moving into "regenerative farming" and will purchase more animals to rotate through the groves including cattle, sheep and free-range chickens.

Andrew said the cost of natural fertiliser was "phenomenal" and by producing it themselves it was a "double whammy".

"You can produce it yourself and reap the benefit of actually having those animals for your own use as well or sell them off," he said.

"The amount of interest in this type of farming here has really taken off."

In more recent months, the business has planted another 120 trees to replace those that have been lost over time and also "give them a bit more as they go".

They don't have enough acreage to further increase their crop size, but Andrew said it was all about maximising what you do have, getting the best out of it and streamlining that process through the cottage industry.

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