Aquiferra – New Zealand

  • Farmer: Bob Marshall & Shona Thompson
  • Brand : Aquiferra
  • Date of settlement : 2001
  • Location : Hastings, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
  • Grove : 650 trees over 4 hectares
  • Varieties : Frantoio, Leccino, Koroneiki, Pictual, et some Manzanillo, Kalamata, Picholine
  • Harvest : late-may, mechanical
  • Productivity : 1 200 to 1 800 liters per year
  • Other products : infused oils and table olives

Curious about Hawke’s Bay after John Dodgson praised the climate of the area (read our previous article about Mount Grey Olives), we decided to go there and had the chance to meet Bob Marshall & Shona Thompson, a couple in their sixties following the traditionnal techniques of conventional agriculture in their hobby-grove.

In Olio Veritas – Bob et Shona, what brought you both to the olive crop ?

Bob & Shona – In the 90s, we were both teaching Sport Science at Auckland University. We suddenly felt like leaving the bustling city and finding a piece of land in the countryside. The idea was to have a hobby that could also allow us to start preparing gradually for retirement (note : Bob’s retired since 2017 while Shona is still working). In 2001, we found and bought this plot of land, and soon after we found jobs at Hawke’s Bay University. We had our 650 olive trees planted on what was previously a plain grazing field.

Bob and Shona’s grove, and their 17 years old trees – © In Olio Veritas

IOV – How did you learn to grow olives and how did you choose the varieties that you planted ?

Bob & Shona – Shona’s brother is an horticulturist, in the apple industry. He helped and taught us a lot, for the pruning mostly. Regarding the varieties, we took a close look at what the growers who settled in the area before us had done. Most of them for example had planted Barnea, but this tree turned out to be poorly suited to this region : the growers had to wait for 10 years before the first crop. You’ll understand why we decided not to plant this variety. We had our first fruits in 2004, and the first commercial crop in 2008. Aquiferra was born !

Aquiferra streamlined bottle for extra-virgin olive oil – © In Olio Veritas

IOV – How did you choose the name of your brand ?

Bob & Shona – Ngaruroro river runs a few kilometers away from here. But this is only the surfaced part of it, as the river also has an underground riverbed, entering the ocean more than one kilometer offshore, draining about two thirds of the total streamflow. People call it Heretaunga’s aquifer, and we named our brand after it.

IOV – Does this aquifer water your trees directly ?

Bob & Shona – We use this water for our trees indeed. But as we are on the edge of the aquifer, we need to pump it at about 25 meters underground. On some pieces of land located right above the middle of the aquifer, you just have to dig a few minutes and under pressure water will flow as a geyser ! Thanks to this enormous water tank, a sedimentary soil and a quite dry and warm climate, Hawke’s Bay is one of the most fertile region in New-Zealand. Half of the fruits and vegetables sold in the country are actually grown here. There are also a lot of vineyards. As you can see, we’re even surrounded by vineyards here !

Grape rows at the other end of Aquiferra’s grove – © In Olio Veritas

IOV – It sounds like you live in the land of milk and honey !

Bob & Shona – Let’s keep our temper. We don’t have much frost and if our climate is dry for New Zealand, it’s still quite moist in absolute terms. Therefore molds are always likely to thrive on our trees. I often say that this is the only thing that we get for free from the nursery…

IOV – How do you handle it ?

Bob & Shona – It’s too moist here to simply use organic methods. We need to spray antifungal compounds. The association of New Zealand’s olive growers has led a survey called Focus Grove Project from 2016 to 2018 in 4 groves in the country, including ours. The goal was to identify and underline the best practices that could increase the productivity of the trees. During these 3 years, we were systematically the most productive grove in the survey with an average 20 to 25 kilos of fruits per tree. The horticulturist and consultant leading the survey stated that he had never seen an healthier grove in the country. They came to the conclusion that spraying was the best thing to do, given New Zealand’s moist climate.

In addition to antifungal compounds, Bob and Shona also spray Round-up to kill weeds – © In Olio Veritas

IOV – Don’t you think that it is against nature ?

Bob & Shona – In our opinion, this is the main proviso if you want to grow olives in this country, with such a climate. Three kilometers from here, there used to be an olive grove with more than 18 000 trees. Those trees were not productive enough, and the farmer eventually had them pulled out and he now grows organic free-range chickens, seemingly much more profitable. Same thing a bit further : 4 000 trees have recently been pulled out to leave the place for a deer farm.

IOV – Are there any other barriers to olives growing here ?

Bob & Shona – We could name birds ! They come for the sweet grapes of the vineyards around, and sometimes come and eat our olives, when the grapes harvest is over. We then have to borrow from the winemakers the tool they use to get rid of them, which is a big cannon shooting with blanks but making a heavy noise that scares the birds.

IOV – What are your main products and your distribution channel ?

Bob & Shona – Our trees give us an average 1 500 liters of olive oil each year, and we also buy olives to smaller farms of the region to process them with ours and increase the volume. We mostly make extra-virgin olive oil but we also produce infused oils (with lime, mandarine, garlic…). Last, we have a few Kalamata and Manzanillo trees that we harvest hand-picking to get table olives. The whole thing is sold to several restaurants, a few grocery stores and Bob is very happy to go to Napier and Hastings’ farmers markets every saturdays and sundays.

Bob and his stand on Napier’s market – © In Olio Veritas

A bit of geography : Bob and Shona’s grove is located a few kilometers away from Napier and Hastings, the twin cities of Hawke’s Bay, counting about 60 000 inhabitants each. In 1931, a powerful earthquake destroyed Napier, and the city center was rebuilt in a Art Deco fashion, which gives a subtle charm to the city, very popular with tourists.

Houses on the seafront in Napier – © In Olio Veritas

 

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