Olive trees originated in an area extending from the eastern coastal regions of the Mediterranean Basin, to the highlands of Iran and Palestine and the coastal area of Syria. The olive has been cultivated for at least 5,000 years and became established in all Mediterranean countries, about 3,000 years ago. From the fifteenth century, European explorers introduced olives to the ‘new world’. Olives came to Australia with the earliest European settlers, and groves were established at Parramatta, near Sydney, in 1805. All states (colonies) of Australia planted groves throughout the 1800s. Mediterranean migrants continued to introduce new varieties to new countries, including Australia, leading to a huge diversity of olive cultivars across the globe.
Australian interest in olive trees was renewed in the 1990s and 2000s, as a diversification option, a hobby block crop or a retirement investment. At the same time, managed investment schemes led to the establishment of several very large groves of olive trees. Throughout the 2000s, the Australian industry grew from a cottage industry to a technically sophisticated and coordinated industry.
Olives have two key end uses: olive oil or table olives. While growing requirements and grove management are largely the same for either product, the end use will influence the selection of varieties to plant, harvesting options, the processing equipment required, and market options. Olive oil production has become increasingly export focused, and since 2000, the quality of Australian olive oil has consistently improved and production efficiencies increased. The growth in the table olive sector has been slower, yet there is significant scope for further growth in domestic and international markets.
The industry is a mature and diverse industry which collects levies from producers that are spent on research, development and extension activities. The interests of growers, both large and boutique, producing both olive oil and table olives, are represented by the Australian Olive Association at a national level, and some state-based and regional associations. All states and regions come under the umbrella of the Australian Olive Association.
Facts and figures
- The scientific name of olive, Olea europaea, is Latin for ‘oil from Europe’
- Groves have been planted throughout Australia since the early 1800s, but a resurgence in olive grove development in the 1990s and 2000s, saw up to 10 million new trees planted
- Mature trees, over nine years old, planted in modern densities could yield up to 40kg of fruit per tree.
- Production and exports of Australian olive oil have been increasing, and imports of olive oil are slowly declining as Australian consumers increasingly purchase locally produced product
- Table olive production in Australia is increasing, as are imports and exports of table olive products.
The growing area is over 20,000 hectares, with production of 130,000 tonnes, of which approximately 95% were extracted for oil, which produced he equivalent of 19.2 million litres of olive oil. Over 70% of trees are concentrated on fewer than 20 groves, with the largest in excess of 6,000 hectares.
The Australian Olive Industry has four identifiable grower sectors:
- 2% are large vertically integrated corporate entities servicing the domestic supermarket trade and targeting export markets, with branded and bulk olive products. Over 80% of Australia’s domestic production comes from this 2% of the industry.
- 82% are smaller and medium sized family based boutique producers developing branded products to service local and other niche markets.
- 16% are medium sized olive producers growing fruit for the bulk olive oil market.
- Then there are small hobby farms which are not commercially producing.
Australian olive oil production trebled from 5,000 tonne in 2005 to 17,000 tonnes or 19.2 million litres of mostly extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), an increase of 31%.
The very large producers aside, olive oil and table olive producers generally combine olive production with other farming or non-farming activity. Boutique-scale production is rarely a source of primary income.