23 Jun

Harvester pick of the crop

A New Zealand-designed and built olive harvester has begun to comb the crop out of trees on Roger Armstrong’s Nelson groves this season.

The one-man, tractor-based harvester combs, collects and cleans the fruit at a rate of 20 trees an hour, equal to the production of eight or nine pickers.

Armstrong designed and built the machine to cope with New Zealand’s tighter plantings and often hilly groves, and to harvest the popular tuscan olives which were harder to get off the tree.

“There are plenty of imported units that do a good job, but I couldn’t find anything that was one- man operated,” he said.

The prototype was undergoing a shakedown season this year.

Armstrong, who understood his was the only New Zealand- designed-and-built harvester, hopes to be able to build machines for interested growers.

Hydraulic-operated tines comb the fruit off the tree into wide, tilted sails, which send the olives onto rubber conveyors.

Brushes and blowers clean the fruit, which is then conveyed to a bin at the rear of the tractor.

Unlike machines that harvest by shaking the fruit from the tree, the machine does not harm the olive trees’ trunks, Armstrong said.

“The biggest challenge was to build something which was as low as possible, but yet still collected the fruit and got it to the back of the machine.”

The harvester’s collection sails do not pick up unwanted ground debris, which means growers can still graze stock in their groves.

Armstrong, who is involved in three groves, expected to produce about 5000 litres of oil under the Tasman Bay Olives label. Two- thirds of the oil would be sold on the domestic market, and the remainder exported to the United States.

With greater acceptance of olive oil in New Zealand, sales had started to trend towards the bulk market, he said.

Olives New Zealand executive officer Alistair Bridge said growers nationally were bullish about this season’s yield. The harvest was under way, or just starting, in the regions, and final volumes were expected to be above last year’s 150,000 litres.

Individual companies marketed their own product, and were advised to consolidate domestic sales before expanding into international markets, he said.

Domestically, local oil was making inroads into imported product.

One Hawkes Bay grove, Village Oils, recently secured a contract to supply the British food chain Tesco.

Serious commercial planting started only eight or nine years ago, and the industry was still consolidating and maturing, Bridge said.

While it could not be globally price competitive, New Zealand olive oil was being recognised for its consistent virgin-oil status.

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