Chilling work to prune olive grove in winter but heating skills pay off

Jocelyn Robinson and Sandy Black, of Dunford Grove, near Cromwell. PHOTOS: MARY-JO TOHILL
Jocelyn Robinson and Sandy Black, of Dunford Grove, near Cromwell. PHOTOS: MARY-JO TOHILL
In the Cromwell basin’s midwinter gloom, it is hard to imagine the burning heat of the Central Otago summer that produces the region’s famous fruit.

This is the time of year when the not-so-glamorous aspect of horticulture gets done and former Dunedin couple Jocelyn Robinson and Sandy Black are busy pruning.

They grow olives at Smith’s Way on the shores of Lake Dunstan. How they got there is a short story: Lake. Boat. House. Olives. Mountains. Sold.

That was about the speed in which their dream of a ‘‘retirement‘‘ project became a reality six years ago.

‘‘We saw a photo of a boat tied up outside the house and we decided to come for a drive,’’ Mr Black said.

By May 2015, they had become the proud owners of 1000 olive trees and 450 hazelnut trees at Dunford Grove and swung into their first harvest.

By 2018, they had won their first gold medal with their olive oils, gaining international recognition.

Olive growing was a relatively small industry in New Zealand, and Australia provided the benchmark for measuring and determining extra virgin olive oil quality.

Paul Miller, of Melbourne, has been an Australian Olive Association board member since 2000 and was president for 15 years.

‘‘I can vouch for the excellence of many New Zealand olive oils that I have experienced over the years. They are great and not easy to achieve. Quality has always been a focus for the industry there.’’

Olives for the picking at Dunford Grove, near Cromwell. Photo: Mary-Jo Tohill
Olives for the picking at Dunford Grove, near Cromwell. Photo: Mary-Jo Tohill

He is also on the United States Pharmacopeia (USP) experts’ panel on olive oil and remembered the 2018 year, which produced an extremely hot summer in Central Otago.

‘‘Jocelyn’s olive oil was unusual because of an unusual season but very good nonetheless and compared well with the other great oils from Spain, Australia and Tunisia that were also used in the session.’’

The Robinson-Black’s relatively quick success story has been achieved through passion, sheer hard work and ingenuity, but any romantic ideas about olive growing were quickly squashed in that first autumn/winter.

‘‘It’s all fairly mechanised now, but when we started, I thought, ‘This is great, we’ll get the family here for the weekend and we’ll whizz around and show them these trees’,’’ Ms Robinson said.

The idea was they would harvest the old-fashioned way, beating the olives out of the trees. At that stage the trees, planted in 2005, were big and unpruned and, three weeks later, they finished.

They joked they had never seen the family at harvest time since.

‘‘We were pretty naive then, and also we just had no idea that it would be so cold and frosty.’’

They learnt the trees tended to hang on to the olives in the cold, ‘‘and they don’t shake off so well’’ but released their fruit in the afternoon when it was warmer or when there was sun.

The mechanised way at Dunford Grove near Cromwell. PHOTOS: MARY-JO TOHILL
The mechanised way at Dunford Grove near Cromwell. PHOTOS: MARY-JO TOHILL
They soon realised the impracticality of hand harvesting, which took about 15 minutes per tree. Using a machine, they could now do 50 trees an hour. The trees were pruned in a V-shape to let the sun in and for easier harvesting access.

Pruning was done by hand. The trimmed off branches become firewood in the home fire with the largest branches turned into olive wood dipping bowls and olive spoons.

The couple grew the Italian varieties Leccino, Frantoio and Pendolino olives best suited to the southern climate. But they were by no means resistant to temperatures below -3degC, so it was a balancing act leaving the olives on the trees for as long as possible to maximise the oil quality, but not to lose the crop through frost.

Ideally, olives needed picking and pressing within five hours. The oil was stored at a temperature between 15degC and 19 degC.

Unlike wine, olive oil did not improve with age. It had a shelf life of two years, and it was recommended, once opened, to use it within six weeks.

Their go-to organisation for advice had been Olives New Zealand. Formally established in 1996, it had created the environment for the New Zealand olive industry to produce premium quality oils and olive products, and to market them successfully nationally and internationally.

It has about 200 members; olive growers, processors, suppliers and others just interested in the olive industry. Olive growers vary in size from hobby groves of fewer than 100 trees to the commercial groves of 40,000 trees.

Mr Black paid tribute to one of the industry’s leading lights, Hawke’s Bay grower Andrew Taylor, who helped them enormously, as the third biggest growers in the Central Otago district.

Although these days they were a well-oiled machine and team, the Robinson-Blacks have had excellent guidance from the national and local olive growing organisations. Most things they had learnt were through trial and error and what suited their property.

‘‘We’d had no experience. Sandy hated gardening. I had a few veges,’’ Ms Robinson said.

But Mr Black, who is close to retirement, has an engineering background, and still works in the central heating industry in Cromwell. That was very handy in finding a practical solution to frost-fighting. He straps two workshop heaters on a pallet to the back of the tractor and goes up and down the rows when the temperature drops to freezing. It was a long night, sometimes from 2am to 7am.

‘‘I tell him, ‘Don’t die, because I can’t do that stuff’,’’ she joked.

She has a home science/home economics as well as a retail background. She owned Potpourri Vegetarian Cafe in Lower Stuart St, in Dunedin, in the 1970s ‘‘when vegetarians didn’t exist’’. It was her first retail business.

They make their own fertiliser from the olive pomace, the solid residue obtained after oil extraction, which is mixed with cow manure, ash from the fire and mulch from prunings and straw from the hen house to put on the trees.

They have no plans to leave. ‘‘In 10 years’ time I don’t know if we’ll want to be doing this, but we’ve got a cottage for the nurse and there’s plenty of room here for our Zimmer frames to go up and down,’’ Ms Robinson laughed.

‘‘Maybe we would lease the trees,’’ Mr Black said.

‘‘I don’t want to prune on my own,’’ Mrs Robinson said. ‘‘And you can’t, from a health and safety point of view,’’ he said. ‘‘It doesn’t work unless we work together,’’ she said.

 - Mary-Jo Tohill

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