SA is set for its best-ever olive harvest

“Olive farmers are experiencing a bumper crop this year,” said Andries Rabie, chairperson of the South African Olive ­Producers’ Organisation.

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Although no official data exists, Rabie estimates Western Cape production to be about three times higher than last year. John Scrimgeour, estate manager of ­Buffet Olives, South Africa’s largest table olive processor, situated in Paarl in the ­Western Cape, confirmed this: “This is ­possibly the best harvest that South Africa has yet experienced. Yields of up to 14 ­tons/ha on planting densities of  300 trees/ha were achieved this season.”

Farmers in the rest of the country also experienced substantially bigger crops than last year, said Rabie. Forecasts for next year are favourable. Olive trees tend to bear heavy crops one year, followed by a light crop the next year, but according to Rabie, a normal crop is projected for next year. He said the recent cold weather and lots of vegetative growth are positive signs for next season.

Scrimgeour advised producers to ­manage alternate bearing by chemical thinning instead of hand-thinning or ­pruning. ­­ Hand-thinning is impractical as it is ­­­time-consuming and labour-intensive, and pruning removes potential bearing wood. Chemical thinning, however, is not easy and the Olive Association’s technical ­committee is currently doing research to provide the industry with better guidelines.

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On the downside, the heavy crop placed ripening and colouring constraints on production, which Scrimgeour reckons to be in excess of 50%. This means that a large percentage of the Mission crop, a late-bearing cultivar, will not be suitable for traditional black table olive processing, where the olives need to change colour from green to completely black. These olives can be processed as half-ripe olives, or sold to oil mills, but at a lower price than black olives.

“Olive oil production is up by 40% for 2007 with an estimated production of close to one million litres,” said Linda Costa of Olives Go Wild, a marketing and promotional company focusing on the olive industry. “This affords local producers an ­opportunity to replace some olive oil imports with locally produced oil, as there are sufficient volumes available this year,” said Costa.

South Africa produces only 17% of ­locally consumed olive oil. Costa suggested local producers align their prices with the global olive oil price, determined by ­bodies in Spain and Italy, in order to become ­internationally competitive. – Wouter Kriel