Sheep out, olives in

Since 2000, Craig Rippon has established almost 7 000 olive trees on his family’s former sheep farm. Mike Burgess visited Springvale Olive Estate to find out why Craig pioneered olive production in the region, and how on-farm processing helped him develop a valuable niche market.

As a child, the first thing Craig Rippon looked for when opening the fridge were olives, and olives were in every package he received from his family while in the army.

So naturally, when he returned to the 1 400ha Springvale farm in Eastern Cape in 1996, the idea of planting olive trees became an obsession.

“I decided I wanted to do it – we had wild olives here in the valley and they fruited beautifully,” he recalls. It seemed the logical thing to do.”

Bringing olives to Alicedale
At one time the Rippon family farmed with 4 000 sheep in the Highlands area between Alicedale and Grahamstown.

Historically, the region has been home to legendary Merino sheep studs, but since the 1990s, livestock farming has given way to extensive game ranches and private game reserves.

Increased theft and predation made sheep farming less profitable and by 1996 the last sheep was sold on Springvale. But Craig was determined to find a way to develop the farm.

In February 2000, he brought the first olives trees to Springvale, by then only home to Bonsmara cattle he farmed with his father, Dr Brian Rippon.

By the end of that year, rows of trees covered over 30ha, and plantings over the next few years brought the number of trees up to 7 000.

Most of the trees are of the Manzinilla (2 000 trees) and Mission varieties (4 000 trees), beside Coratina, Frantoio, Nocellara del Belice, Leccino and Kalamata.

“More than a quarter of my olives are Mission, the most versatile olives. It is a dual purpose variety you can use for oil and for table olives,” says Craig.

By 2007, the olive trees produced their first harvest of 110t to 115t. A significant proportion was sold to clients in Western Cape, but Craig managed to store 65t of naturally fermenting olives in a converted goat and dairy shed that today serves as the Springvale Olive Estate’s processing facility.

Poor yields
But from 2007 to 2010, one of the worst droughts in living memory devastated the area. Irrigating the olive trees was nearly impossible, and during 2008 and 2009, olive harvests never exceeded 5t a year.

From 2010, harvests increased and a crop of more than 100t is expected in 2012. But as Craig explains, poor harvests in olive orchards are expected as olive trees are alternate bearing – something new producers need to come to terms with.

“Don’t ever expect olives to consistently produce heavily. They have off and on years,” he explains. “In an off year, production can be as low as 10% of the on-year crop. Plan for a disappointing harvest in at least two years out of every five. It is therefore critical to get the most from every harvested olive.”

Craig has worked tirelessly over the years to establish a unique niche market for various value-added Springvale Olive Products, and has drilled boreholes to boost water supply on the farm.

Value-added products for a niche market
Adding value to raw olives and marketing his Springvale Olive Products personally have been critical in Craig’s fight for a piece of the national olive market. “The bulk of olive oil and table olives consumed in SA are imported from subsidised European producers,” he says. “In particular you’re up against inferior oils sold dirt cheap. I know how to extract value from olives. I process them and sell them as a finished product direct to the consumer.”

The Springvale Olive processing facility is dominated by large plastic tanks capable of naturally fermenting 65t of olives. The process can be tricky, says Craig, since to prevent bacterial spoilage,the pH of the fermenting solution must be kept between 3,6 and 4,2 and salinity levels between 8% and 12%.

Naturally fermented olives are packaged in various ways, with an increasing emphasis on bulk sales, including 1l, 3l and 5l containers. Other Springvale Olive Products include pitted sun-dried olives, slit olives, marinated table olives and tapenades, marketed via social networks and established niche retailers across Eastern Cape and in Johannesburg.

Craig explains that customers and outlet owners often value an association with the personality behind the product they’re buying. Consumers often relish the opportunity to buy olive products in bulk. “Knowing the personality behind the product makes a big difference as the buck can’t be passed,” he explains. “There is so much rubbish being put into products nowadays so if the customer can trust the producer they will buy.

“And when consumers realise the cost savings on buying a 3,5kg bucket of olives rather than the equivalent in 100g pouches from the supermarket, they make a bee-line for your door.” Craig also makes a point of selling Springvale Olive Products at major festivals, shows and expos across Eastern Cape, and supplies delis, selected retail outlets and restaurants in Grahamstown, Port Alfred, Kenton-on-Sea, Port Elizabeth and Johannesburg.

Breaking into the olive oil market
After importing an Olimio 150 olive press from Italy in 2010, Craig produced his first 4 500l of extra-virgin olive oil via a cold extraction process. At first he tried to sell his Springvale Extra-Virgin Olive Oil to retailers, but found it practically impossible to compete with cheaper imports.“It’s an absolute nightmare with oils, because supermarkets in South Africa actually don’t care if you’re local – it’s about price,” he says. “Supermarket owners said not to even bother if I couldn’t compete with the Spanish, Greek or Italian prices.”

Worse, he says, studies suggest certain imported olive oils are poor quality and often laced with inferior olive or other vegetable oils, while labels often misrepresent the quality of the oil. “You’re up against cheap inferior oils and the consumer and store owner think it is the same quality as yours,” he explains.

Although Craig supplies oil to certain local retailers, bulk sales to individuals and restaurants in Gauteng and Eastern Cape have made the most difference. “I started with 500ml and 250ml bottles but they’re actually the slowest movers. People in this kind of economy are getting more sussed about the idea of buying in bulk and paying less,” he says. “People will splash out to get a 5l tin knowing that they’re getting a good oil for R75/l, rather than buy 1l in a supermarket for over R100.”

Contact Craig Rippon at [email protected]