How to start an olive farm that can crack export markets

Getting into the olive farming business can be tricky, but at Food For Mzansi we believe that everyone can follow their agriculture dreams armed with the right knowledge! Here’s your guide to olive farming, with insider tips and tricks from Briony Coetsee from Marbrin Olive Farm, and Dr Hannes Brummer from Oudewerfskloof Olive Farm

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So, you want to start an olive farm? Olives are versatile little fruits used to make more than just olive oil and finger foods to serve alongside your tapas. You can make a variety of value-added products from your olives, ranging from olive oil and olive oil blends, table olives, processed olive foods such as olive tapenade, or even olive skincare products.

“You have to understand that it’s not like it is in the movies,” say Briony Coetsee, owner and farmer at Marbrin Olive Farm in the Breede River Valley of the Western Cape. “It is a lot of hard work.”

Coetsee, in true “baptism by fire” fashion, was thrown into the deep end when her father wanted to sell the farm. She couldn’t let that happen, so she packed up her life in London in 2012 and bought the farm from her dad. She and her partner, Clive Heymans, have been running Marbrin Olive Farm since then.

The Marbrin Farm partners showing off their ABSA Top 5 Olive Oil Award in 2016. From left to right: Clive Heymans, Briony Coetsee and Briony’s father, Pieter Coetsee. Photo: Supplied

According to Coetsee there are many challenges, not just with the farming. There’s also cash flow, labour, and the fact that there is little support from the government when it comes to agriculture. But in the end, she admits she would not want to be anywhere else.

“It’s the reason I live, and why I do what I do,” she says. “I liken farming to being Hotel California: it looks amazing from the outside, and once you get in you can never leave.”

Another farmer who entered the olive farming business after pursuing other careers first is Dr Hannes Brummer of Oudewerfskloof Olive Farm in Stilbaai.

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“I am a urologist by profession but coming from farming stock, I have always had a desire to farm,” says Brummer.

Dr Hannes Brummer, a urologist by trade, an olive farmer at heart. Photo: Oudewerfskloof Olive Farm
Dr Hannes Brummer, a urologist by trade, an olive farmer at heart. Photo: Supplied

After falling in love with the small seaside town of Stilbaai, Brummer and his wife, Henriette, moved there in 2000 to live the beach-living dream.

“We decided to swap beach living for an olive farm in 2006,” Brummer says. “And this is where Oudewerfskloof found its origin.”

From a small olive grove of a mere 1000 trees in 2006, the Brummers built the farm up to be what it is today – a thriving boutique olive farm with more than 15 000 trees.

Henriette Brummer died in 2020 after a long battle with cancer. “The olive farm was her passion and dream come true,” says Hannes.

So, for all you potential olive farmers out there, find out from these seasoned olive farmers how you can start your own olive farm, and what hurdles you can expect to face. From starting up, to value-adding, to advice from a seasoned olive farmer, here’s what you need to know about farming with olives:

1. Climate

Olive trees come from Mediterranean climates, and were introduced to Mzansi’s soil in the early 1900s. A Mediterranean climate is characterised by cold, wet winters (with no frost) and hot, dry summers, so these are the climates where olive trees are likely to flourish. But with the multitudes of different cultivars, you are sure to find hardier species or cultivars that are best suited to your climate region.

Brummer says that the Oudewerfskloof award-winning olive oils is a testament to the very unique climate in Stilbaai, which is ideal for olive trees.

how to farm with olives
Olive trees thrive in a Mediterranean climate. Photo: Supplied

According to this document composed by the department of agriculture, land reform and rural development, the olive industry is centred around Paarl and Wellington in the Western Cape, but has also expanded to other areas. These areas summer rainfall areas include the Northern Cape (Vaalharts, Prieska and Upington), Eastern Cape (Alicedale), North West (Brits) and Limpopo (Modimolle).

2. Soil

Not only does Stilbaai have a great climate for growing olives, it also has the perfect soil.

“We are situated near Stilbaai, in an ideal Mediterranean environment,” Brummer says. “Being on the banks of the Goukou River with the limestone terroir creates the best environment to produce perfect olive oil.”

SA Olive has a list of strict criteria for the soil used to farm olive trees. The soil should be well drained and well aerated, and the trees planted at least 80cm deep. Shallow soils lead to poor production and yield, while root diseases are likely to occur in soil that does not drain well.

With a pH requirement just below neutral (pH 6,5), and a relatively normal requirement for drainage and aeration, it might seem easy to prepare soil for olive farming. But this is sadly not the case, and in most cases thorough soil preparation is necessary before planting. A soil analysis should be done on the soil prior to planting, so that when the soil is being prepared the necessary minerals can be added.

3. Cultivars

There are many different olive tree cultivars available in South Africa, all with different yields and climate preferences.

“A good option would be the late-season olive cultivars, because you get a higher yield,” Coetsee advises. These cultivars include the Coratina, Frantoio, Koroneiki and the Picual.

“I think the best tree to plant, for our sake and our market, is the Mission tree,” Coetsee also says. “The Mission is good because you can use it for table olives as well as for oil.”

There are many different olive tree cultivars available in South Africa, all with different yields and climate preferences.
There are many different olive tree cultivars available in South Africa, all with different yields and climate preferences. Photo: Oudewerfskloof Olive Farms

Brummer agrees with the use of the Mission olive for its dual-purpose benefits.

“We grow a wide variety of cultivars at Oudewerfskloof in order to create gorgeous blends of olive oil,” Dr Brummer says. “If we had to choose the most lucrative option, it would be Mission olives. This cultivar can be used in both the extra virgin olive oil as well as being a great option as a table olive.”

On SA Olive’s website you can find a list of registered nurseries where you can procure your olive trees. The Olive Branch lists cultivars suited for olive oil, for table olives, as well dual-purpose cultivars, and the differences between them. You’ll be sure to get an idea of which cultivar would best suit your needs here!

4. Establishment

Olive trees should be ordered well in advance, advises Olive SA – at least a year prior to when you want to plant them. Olive trees are prepared in nurseries from cuttings, or grafted onto rootstock. The trees should be watered regularly as olive trees require frequent watering to thrive, but avoid planting them in areas where they will stand in water during the rainy season.

Do not apply fertiliser directly when the trees are first being planted, since direct contact can burn the roots.

An olive tree has a lifespan of at least 30 years. It is, therefore, important to select the correct locality and cultivar, and to prepare the soil properly beforehand.

5. Management and upkeep

Brummer takes a holistic approach when it comes to his olive farm, where the importance of the olive trees as well as the farm workers take centre-stage.

“Olive trees require a lot of care – food, water, good pruning, medical care and most of all, passion and love,” according to Brummer. “If you focus on this as well as investing in good people, you will be able to achieve a sustainable and predictable quality of olive oil and table olives.”

Olive trees do not need special olive tree fertiliser, but results will be exponentially more satisfactory with a good nutrition regimen, according to Olive Tree Growers.

Olive SA advises that the correct management of nitrogen is critical to maintaining the balance between growth and cropping. Nitrogen should be applied regularly in small doses during the growing season to prevent excessive vegetative growth caused by single large applications.

Pruning can be kept to a minimum during the first few years after establishment, but there are many different approaches to pruning and training olive trees.

Lucky for you, olive tree pests are largely kept in check by local South African predators, making it easy to produce and market as organic products. The three main pests to look out for are the yellow and black striped olive beetle (on young trees), the olive lace bug that attacks the leaves, and the olive fly which targets the fruits.

Olive SA also warns about some fungal diseases, but all of these can be controlled by integrated management practices.

6. Harvesting

If there’s anything that probably everybody knows about olives, it’s that they are a very labour-intensive crop. This is because mostly the olives have to be picked by hand (in the case of table olives), while oil olives can be stripped from the trees using various means and caught in nets placed on the ground.

Family harvest at the Marbrin Olive Farm. Photo: Marbrin Olive Farm

Table olive fruit should be picked individually and placed carefully into picking bags or buckets which have been lined with foam rubber, as advised by the department of agriculture, land reform and rural development.

The harvesting period is usually between February and July, but this will fluctuate between the different cultivars. The olives must be harvested when they are a specific size or colour (cultivar dependent), so that means multiple harvest periods might be required since they will not all ripen at the same time.

7. Value-adding

When it comes to finding a market for olives and olive oil, you might have to take some time to find out what you want to produce and who you want to target. By adding value to your product, you can enter different markets. But then you must also consider the time and money that goes into producing a product from your raw materials.

“Many consumers strive to support local and we have world-class olives and olive oil right here in South Africa,” Dr Brummer says.
“Many consumers strive to support local and we have world-class olives and olive oil right here in South Africa,” Dr Hannes Brummer says. Photo: Supplied

“Olive oil is a very low-yielding product,” Coetsee says. “It costs a lot of money to produce.”

“Don’t make olive oil,” she laughs. “Do table olives instead.”

This warning comes from the days when she first started on the farm, before South Africans really knew that we produce high quality olive oil right here and that we don’t need to buy imported olive oil over local ones. Recently, however, she has noticed that the trend to buy local has boosted business in the local olive oil industry.

Brummer says that there is now a huge market for olives in South Africa.

“Many consumers strive to support local and we have world-class olives and olive oil right here in South Africa,” Brummer says.

“Many of the best locally produced extra virgin olive oils carry the official seal of the SA Olive Association,” he adds. “This CTC seal means that the producer has committed to comply with various quality standards and that the oil has been approved.

Coetsee advises potential olive farmers to explore different income streams with their olive products, including hosting tastings on the farm. Photo: Supplied
Briony Coetsee advises potential olive farmers to explore different income streams with their olive products, including hosting tastings on the farm. Photo: Supplied

Other ways of adding value to your olive products is to offer tastings on the farm, either the olive oil or the different varieties of table olives.

“We host tastings to bring in extra money,” Coetsee says. They are also involved with every step of the process, including packaging of the products.

8. Words of advice from seasoned olive farmers

“Invest in good people and add value to the life of every worker on the farm,” is the sage advice from Brummer. “Focus your time and energy into caring for your olive trees which will help ensure a sustainable and predictable outcome of superior quality olive oils and table olives.”

Coetsee wants to remind all potential farmers that it really is very hard work, for minimal financial reward.

“This is why you will find that these days farmers need to tap into other forms of income just to sustain themselves,” she says. This could include tastings and serving tapas lunches on the farm.

“My advice would be to let the rewards of farming not be financial, but more spiritual, more living off the land,” she says.

And if you want to export?

“Make sure you have the right connections,” Coetsee says.

Exporting olives and olive oil, or any fruit for that matter, is a risky business when you don’t know what you are getting yourself into. You can lose money, time and your product if you don’t export with someone you know and trust.

Don’t let exporters bully you into exclusivity deals, or only paying you after months of receiving the product, Coetsee warns.

“If you can find someone that is reliable and that you can trust in the export field, go for it!” Coetsee says. “And good luck.”

And a last note of encouragement from Brummer: “Go big or go home, and live your dream!”

ALSO READ: 5 tips to export fresh produce to global markets

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