By Kim Woods,
Harvest, which began in mid-April, is wrapping up after severe frosts last week.
Wagga Wagga, in NSW, is home to about 55,000 trees owned by investment companies and small growers.
The Riverina Olive Growers Association has 45 active members picking fruit from up to 30,000 trees.
Association secretary Vici Murdoch said unseasonal heat and rain had caused some “unbalanced” oils and that oil yields at 19 per cent were 1-2 per cent down on average.
Ms Murdoch said the Riverina harvest was targeted at the boutique market and would be unaffected by bulk quantities of oil flooding the market this year.
“Bulk prices are at $7-$8/litre but if that oil is bottled, then it’s worth $40-$60/litre,” she said.
Wagga Wagga growers and processors Neville and Chris Chapple machine-harvested fruit from 7500 trees this year, including three tonnes of table olives.
Two years ago the couple, of Wollundry Grove, bought a $500,000 processing plant and this year added $250,000 of harvesting machinery.
Able to process 500kg an hour, it’s the only olive oil processing plant in the eastern Riverina and one of three of its type in Australia.
The Topavi harvesting machine, imported from Italy, can also be used on almond, pistachio, walnut, apple and plum crops.
Mr Chapple said the harvester vibrated the top of the tree rather than the root system, causing fruit to drop into a large umbrella.
He said a tree was shaken for no more than 10 seconds.
“This machine will benefit small growers in this region due to the high cost of manual labour and the lack of casual pickers,” Mr Chapple said.
“But, the groves must be well managed and the trees be mature (over six years) with a clean trunk for the harvester.”
Mr and Mrs Chapple planted 2000 oil and table fruit trees of manzanillo, frantio, nevadillo, corrigiolo and leccino 11 years ago.
A November hail storm destroyed a third of this year’s crop.
“Fruit quality is the best ever but in terms of oil extracted, yields and tonnage are down,” Mr Chapple said.
“Prices are 10-20 per cent lower as the larger groves come into full production, but we expected that.”
To offset the hit at retail level, the couple plan to increase their presence at food and wine shows, online and in the local tourism market.