- Farmer : John et Jan Dodgson
- Brand : Mount Grey Olives
- Settlement year : 2009
- Location : Amberley, North Canterbury, New-Zealand
- Size of the grove : 7 hectares, 2000 trees
- Varieties : Leccino, Barnea, Frantoio, J-2, Manzanillo, Verdale
- Harvest : June ; partly mechanical and partly with electrical combs
- Production : an average 3.000 liters yearly
- Other products: infused oils, table olives, soaps
North Canterbury is one of these areas in New-Zealand where olive farmers and grape growers have been settling for more than 20 years. If the soil is indeed very suitable for olive trees, climate however is less auspicious, as most olive growers have found out through the years. We met one of them, John Dodgson, in his craft farm Mount Grey Olive.
In Olio Veritas – John, could you please tell us what is the story behind Mount Grey Olive ?
John Dodgson – My wife Jan and I are both New-Zealanders, but we lived many and many years abroad, mainly in South-Africa and Australia. About 15 years ago, we started thinking of a move back to New-Zealand, especially because we were tired of the repetitive forest fires surrounding our home in Melbourne’s region. As Jan had already started an olive oil recipe craft soaps activity, she persuaded me that it would be great to buy out an olive grove so that she could have her own raw material at home. We first searched a grove in Hawke’s Bay area, on the North Island, but in vain and we eventually had this opportunity here, that we’ve seized in 2009.
IOV – Which means that you had no particular skills, training or experience in olives growing ?
John – Yes and no. I have a PhD in horticulture and I spent my whole life in the agricultural world, dedicating the last years of my career to the apple industry. New-Zealand is one of the world’s leaders for apple ! By the way I traveled a lot in France for this job. Anyway, I somehow know how to handle trees. But it’s true that olive trees are very particular ones, and I had to train and practice step by step for the grove maintenance, the pruning, the harvest. I have a rather scientist way of doing this : I test and learn, trying to replicate what has proved successful. And I could often count on the nice team-spirit of the olive growers in the area.
IOV – You said earlier that you would have liked better buying a grove in Hawke’s Bay area. Why ?
John – For climate, mostly. Here in North Canterbury we usually have suitable spring and summer, but fall and winter, when olives are to be harvested, often turn out to be less propitious. In addition to a high humidity rate due to the many rainfalls, we also have to face frost, up to 12 days a year before olives are completely ready for harvest. In average, our trees can support a -3°C temperature. Below that point, we barely have 24 hours to harvest, otherwise the fruits die. A grower of the neighborhood once tried to press frozen olives : the oil was sent directly to the bin. In Hawke’s Bay, climate is not ideal either, but it’s still milder.
IOV – Then why in the first place did people plant olive trees here ?
John – Maybe the first growers to settle here didn’t lean enough on the climate issue. And then others followed them, and we are now more than 30 olive growers in the region. But there are also good things about this area. Our soil, for example, is excellent. Stoney and free-draining, it’s very suitable for olive trees and the roots that need a dry soil. Yet I keep thinking that, for the olive crop, climate prevails over soil.
IOV – Is there a place in New-Zealand where climate is really suited for olive growing ?
John – Climate in New-Zealand is mostly not suited for the olive crop, either because of moisture or frost. I can only think of one place, in Banks Peninsula, where you can find the best climate and soil combination in the country. A volcanic, free-draining and productive soil together with a special microclimate. But it is a very small area, counting only 2 olive groves. And except for that area, I have the sad belief that olives in New-Zealand will remain a marginal business, because of climate.
IOV – You mentioned moister as a barrier. What is specifically the problem for you ?
John – Moister means pests, diseases and molds that hurt the trees. The molds that we suffer from here are mainly the same as you have in Europe. The peacock spot for example, a fungus whose spores are spread by rain and that kills the leaves. We also have anthracnose, an other fungus that yet hurts directly the fruits. Now we even have the black scale, a pest that lives and lay eggs on leaves and branches. On the other hand, New-Zealand has so far been spared by the olive fly or Xylella.
IOV – How do you tackle molds ?
John – I have a conventional agriculture background, which means that I spent a lot of time in my life spraying chemicals. But when settling here, I gradually looked into more environmental techniques, especially towards the soil. If you have a healthy soil, you’ll get healthy fruits and healthy animals. I advise a lot of farmers and horticulturists in the region, wishing to switch to organic farming, or at least reduce their use of chemicals. This consultancy occupation is even my main source of revenues, since the olive crop is mostly a hobby. For example, I’ve been advising a dairy farmer for 11 years, who successfully managed to turn organic. His cows are much healthier than before and give more milk. He’s even become the leading dairy farmer in the region.
IOV – And concretely in your grove ?
John – To get rid of mold and some of the pests, I need to reduce moister and therefore get rid of the weeds under the trees. But to do this, I can’t count on sheep because they would eat the bark of our younger trees, and we have only two horses which is not enough to do the job. Therefore I mow a part of the grove but this is really time consuming and in the other part I still need to spray Round-up.
IOV – Did you say Round-up ?
John – Yes. It’s efficient and doesn’t hurt much the soil with the few quantities that I spray. A lot of farmers have their soil tested to analyze the pollution level, but the roots go much deeper than where the samples are taken, so I decided to rather have the leaves tested. And the results are in the average.
IOV – You said that olive crop was a hobby for you. But it sounds to take you a lot of time. How do you cope with it ?
John – It’s difficult ! Taking care of the trees, and pruning especially, takes a lot of time. A few years ago, I had even given up on some parts of the grove, before I eventually decided to tackle it a couple of years later. The trees had grown so much, they were so tall and bushy that it took me a lot to make it up right. I must say that this whole thing is a little too big for me…
A bit of geography : Amberley is a small city in North Canterbury, a 45 minutes drive north of Christchurch, the main city in the South Island. Looking around, all seems flat and greenish and it’s hard to believe that this is actually a highly seismic area. Yet in 2011, a 6,3 Richter-magnitude earthquake destroyed a part of Christchurch, causing 185 casualties. In 2016, at the same distance northbound, near the seaside resort Kaïkoura, another earthquake reaching 7,8 of magnitude made big damage and killed two. It’s a flat land but if you take a closer look, you’ll soon see a 933 meters a.s.l. mountain named Mount Grey, that gave its name to the Dodgson’ olive oil.