Olives heart of family's new lifestyle

There's no better place to live than Bannockburn, say Trevor and Sue McNamara. Photo by Lynda Van...
There's no better place to live than Bannockburn, say Trevor and Sue McNamara. Photo by Lynda Van Kempen.
A bottle of the McNamara's olive oil.
A bottle of the McNamara's olive oil.
The McNamara's home is just a stone's throw from the olive grove.
The McNamara's home is just a stone's throw from the olive grove.
The backdrop provided by the Cairnmuir Mountains is "ever-changing", the McNamaras say.
The backdrop provided by the Cairnmuir Mountains is "ever-changing", the McNamaras say.
Rakes like this are used to harvest the olive crop. Friends and family join forces to make the...
Rakes like this are used to harvest the olive crop. Friends and family join forces to make the day a social occasion.

Ever felt like walking out on your life? Well, that's exactly what Trevor and Sue McNamara did when they took their children and moved from South to Central Otago for a lifestyle change. Lynda Van Kempen talks to the couple who say they have no regrets about the move.

For the good oil on Bannockburn, look no further than Trevor and Sue McNamara.

The married couple "walked out of our life" in South Otago 18 years ago and shifted to Central Otago with their two young children, for a change of lifestyle.

They have never looked back or regretted taking the gamble, and say they are truly living the good life on their 0.8ha property.

"Some men have their 'man-cave', well, that's mine out there," says Mr McNamara, waving his arm at the couple's olive grove next to their Hall Rd home in Bannockburn.

The couple both work at the Otago Polytechnic's Cromwell campus, Trevor as a horticulture lecturer and Sue as a technician in the catering department. The trip to work takes them all of seven minutes.

When they first shifted to Central Otago, Mr McNamara signed himself up for a horticulture course at the polytechnic, wanting a career change after working in the freezing works.

"It was a big step for us, leaving the security of a permanent job that was well paid and coming here; walking out of the life we had and taking the kids away from their school, but we'd always dreamed of owning an orchard.

"I never thought I had the skills, then saw the horticulture course at polytech and was sold," he said.

They rented a house in Cromwell for a year and then bought the Bannockburn property, falling in love with the area.

"Bannockburn is always in the sun. This was the first house of all the properties we looked at, and it was on a bare block of land, but it was just meant to be," Mrs McNamara said.

Converting the bare land into an olive grove happened in 2003, after the couple did their homework and sought advice from the pioneers of the olive industry in Central Otago.

Mr McNamara visited olive blocks through his work as a lecturer and Mrs McNamara was well aware of the local product, from her work in the catering department.

"We went to olive picking at Cathy Christie's at Ripponvale.

"She gave us a bottle of olive oil and that triggered it, really. She was very helpful, as was John Fairmaid, who was also growing olives here, " Mr McNamara said.

They rotary-hoed the bare ground and "took the plunge" in 2003, initially planting 170 trees, alternating rows of Leccino and Frantoio varieties.

That number has expanded to 200 trees, but the McNamaras are quick to point out the grove is more a hobby than a commercial enterprise.

"In that time we've had three major harvests. Our first harvest was two handfuls of olives and the first one we made oil from, produced 1.5 litres.

"Our last harvest was one-and-a-half tonnes of olives that produced 180 litres of oil," he said.

The trees are now at full maturity and maximum production and Mr McNamara prunes them low to make them easy to harvest - "no ladders needed."

The oil is pressed by Stephen Clark of Cairnmuir Olives, and bottled under the McNamara's Poverty Gully brand.

Contrary to rumour, the Poverty Gully title refers to the area's history, not to the amount of money the couple have poured into the enterprise.

Poverty Gully was historically a tailrace during the Central Otago gold rush, a dry gully between two areas rich in gold.

"Either side of it produced gold but this spot here, right on our property, was dry," Trevor said.

Part of an old map showing the site is reproduced as background on the labels.

Producing their own olive oil is an immensely satisfying experience.

"Seeing it come to fruition - it's a lovely feeling; growing the trees, getting the crop and seeing the end result in a bottle," Mrs McNamara said.

The harvest, at Queen's Birthday weekend, is very much a social occasion. Family and friends come from near and far to help out.

Nets are laid on the ground under the trees and the olives are "raked" from the branches.

Last time, there were 38 pickers, and the harvest was done over two days for the first time.

"It's a really festive occasion. With people coming from Canterbury and down south to help out as well as our neighbours, it's just amazing.

"We thought they'd only come once but they're fascinated by it and invariably they come back the next year and bring someone else with them, " she said.

She and a colleague from the polytechnic cater for the harvest and Mr McNamara says the great food on offer is part of the attraction. Mulled wine and chocolate does the rounds at the last break before the day's task is completed.

The polytechnic's horticulture students and chefs in training also take part in the harvest and later watch the oil being pressed and taste the end product, to get the full experience.

Chefs rave about the peppery and herbaceous taste of the Central Otago-produced oil, which is very different from North Island-grown oils, Mrs McNamara said.

The North Island season is longer, while the Central Otago olives ripen during a short and sharp season.

The taste of Poverty Gully olive oil has certainly found favour with the judges of national awards. The Bannockburn oil has won medals each year it has been entered in the Olives New Zealand Extra Virgin Olive Awards - one gold and two silvers.

Aside from the bonus of being productive, the olive trees are also ornamental, with their silvery leaves providing year-round interest in the garden.

The olives have to be picked before any frosts strike and all the crop is picked at the same time.

A third of the olives are dark, a third straw-coloured and a third still green.

The oil has a green tinge, compared with North Island-produced oil which is more yellow.

The microclimate in their area means frosts are a rarity and the trees are easy-care, the McNamaras said.

Mr McNamara's grandfather, Bob McNamara, known as "Bullocky Bob", used to run bullock teams through Central Otago, so the family has strong links to the area dating back almost a century.

The McNamaras say Bannockburn has "everything."

"You've got the peace and quiet, the vineyards and fruit all around, and views like this.

"Why would you ever want to leave?" she said.

- lynda.van.kempen@odt.co.nz


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