Ellengrove is a remarkable story of persistence and determination of a family to realise their dream of establishing an olive grove and fostering a new industry. It is also a remarkable tale of battling the government bureaucracy, and eventually succeeding despite the barriers placed in front of them. Fortunately it has a happy ending – 50 hectares of certified organic olive grove on a 2200 hectare NASAA certified property at Narrandera, and quality oil, sold through gourmet outlets from Queensland to Victoria with the bulk being sold at three farmers markets in Sydney. Tim Marshall spoke to Nick Andrews at the launch of a new Organic Olive Association of Australia and New Zealand, in Adelaide. The meeting was held in association with the annual conference of The Australian Olive Association.

Nicks Andrew's father, Andreas Apostolopoulos (anglicised to Andrews Andrews), emigrated from Greece in 1938, and was taken by his cousins immediately to Numurkah and Echuca in Victoria, where he worked in grocery shops and milk bars. Later he moved to Melbourne and worked as a drink waiter at the Australia Hotel and at Navaretti's nightclub. Eventually he was able to realise his dream of acquiring land and bought a well known grazing property at Hay called "Nyangay". He sold this eventually and bought the National Building in Sydney's Pitt Street.

By the 1950s, Andreas was again on the land, and establishing his life long goal, an olive grove. Andreas had come from a family with a history of six or seven generations of olive production, and although his younger years in Greece were spend shepherding, olives were the main focus of his agricultural efforts. Between 1956 and 1975, the family lived on the olive grove at Moorebank, on the SW perimeter of Sydney. They established 4,000 olive trees, including the popular varieties Frantoia, Kalamata, Manzanillo, Sevillano (Spanish Queen) and Verdale.

Andreas experienced the common olive producers dilemma, when he discovered that many trees were not true to form. He did much grafting of the trees to improve production; some trees were reworked several times.

In 1972, with the unirrigated trees growing well, the NSW State Planning Authority moved to resume the land. To add insult to injury, the land was only to be used for open space, rather than valuable construction of homes or commercial premises. The family fought the decision for three years before they were told that there was no way that they could stay on their land. The olive trees made little impression on the bureaucrats, who told them that they did not have the basis for a viable industry, as Australians did not consume much olive oil at that time.

When he was finally told to leave, Andreas decided to take the trees with him. Some trees were already twenty years old, so the move became a massive logistical operation. In 1975 he purchased “Somerset Park” a 2,200 hectare property at Narrandera, with sandy loam soil and three streams, being the Yanco, Washpan and Cuddle Creeks. Approximately 250 hectares of this land occasionally floods and becomes a lake, with many waterbirds, such as black swans, pelican, ibis and brolga, and some of the property is now to be designated as a wildlife reserve.

The property turned out to be a significant one for organic production, as it was next door to Yanko Park, which was later purchased by Alfred Haupt, and converted to biodynamics. Yanko Park was an important inspiration to many other broad-acre farmers experimenting with organic-biodynamic agriculture, and Alfred broke much new ground with exports of certified produce, including the first exports from Australia of certified wool. Following Alfred’s death, another of one of his properties, Warilba, which also borders Somerset Park was purchased by Andrew Steiner and continues to be managed biodynamically.

A tree at Ellengrove
A tree at Ellengrove

Moving the olive grove took three months. The mature olive trees were trimmed to remove the canopy, cutting them at the first major fork. They were lifted using a front end loader, and the smaller trees were bagged. Two teams of workers were involved, one at Liverpool and another at Narrandera.

The trees were manhandled into the holes, and a fire engine was purchased and used to water them in. About 500 trees did not survive. Those that did survive have made good growth.

Being no lack of space on the property, the trees were established on 10m x 10m spacings, to allow room for mechanical harvesting, and for full canopy development. They were flood irrigated at the start, but most trees then became dry-land trees, with a much smaller area receiving some irrigation.

Nick and his brothers John and Paul are in the process of establishing another 5-10,000 trees on a more modern, closer spacing plan, with drip irrigation.

Somerset Park produces “Ellengrove Extra Virgin Olive Oil, a high-quality single estate oil. The focus is very much on oil, although they will do some pickling and have always sold some raw olives, mainly to Greek families. For a long time Greek and Italian families were the main outlet, and many of the labourers involved in the property took a percentage of their wages as olives or olive oil. Slowly, over the decades, Australian tastes have changed, and quality olive oil is now a valued gourmet product.

In 1963 Ellengrove acquired a Rapanelli oil press. The oil expelling process used by this machine is known as Sinolea. It used a hammer mill to macerate fruit, which is spilled into a tub with slits in the side. Metal paddles, called Battini, operate to draw the oil out. The unique aspect of this machine is that the paste does not come into contact with water, and therefore water-soluble anti-oxidants are not lost. Some improvements have been made to the process in recent years, including the use of new polymers with better surface tension properties than stainless steel.

The process remains quite inefficient, as it only extracts about 40% of oil from the paste in the first operation, because there is almost no pressure or force applied, no centrifuging and no water contact.

Total Packaging in Sydney, also certified by NASAA, bottles the oil in short runs.

Current redevelopment includes DNA testing being used to establish varieties present. Lower volume oil yielding trees such as Verdales are being top-worked to Frantoia, which is one of the main Tuscan varieties, and it has a very high yields of extremely high quality oil.

There are few olive pests in this region, due to favourable growing conditions and the robustness of the trees. Black sooty mould is a minor issue, especially near the roads, where dust may play a small role. The main treatment is cultural control; especially open pruning to allow light into the tree. There is also evidence of some minor scale presence, and while in the past this has been treated with white oil, over the last fifteen years, has been left untreated and presents no threat.

Green manure crops are grown and there is been little use of cultivation, as they have moved to minimum tillage practice over the last 5-10 years. The main inputs are legume seed and labour for pruning and harvesting. Harvest is done by hand, with tarps spread under the trees. They use an oscillating tool that runs from a car battery or direct from the tractor electrical system. It takes two people about 10 minutes to harvest each tree, yielding up to 150 kg per tree. Nick wants to eventually move to a mechanical shaker. There is also a major project for restorative pruning which will take at least four seasons to complete.

The olive grove was certified by NASAA in 1998. The broad-acre area of "Somerset Park" have also been certified for the last two years, and grows spelt, an old style of wheat with low gluten, that is now in great demand.

The Andrews family maintained a herd of cattle from the late eighties to about 1999. They were also managed organically, but they were not certified for grazing until recently The home herd has dwindled but the organic pastures are used for agistment by Andrew Steiner.

The Andrews family has become very active in local issues and can claim some significant role in convincing the council to reject Monsanto trails of GM crops, which they perceive as potentially threatening their organic status.

Nick and Bill Andrews at Sydney market
Nick and Bill Andrews at Sydney market
The Sydney Farmers Markets

Paul Andrews has the major responsibility of running the property, while Nick handles marketing. Nick believe that direct marketing is essential for their business, as the farm gate price for oil is crashing due to amalgamations and concentration of purchasing power in the olive industry. He expects the recent downward trend to be accelerated this year, with major olive buyers reducing their price from $1,300 per tonne to around $600 or $700, and the farm-gate purchase price of oil has fallen from $8-10 per litre to around $4 a litre.

Nick attends the Pyrmont Market, also known as the "Good Living Sydney Morning Herald" market, on the first Saturday of the month, from 7 to 11 am. He also has a stall at the North Sydney Market, on the third Saturday of the month from 8 am - 12 noon. The other market where he is a regular is at Fox Studios, on Wednesdays. There is a smaller clientele for this market, and the farm produce there is mixed with a smattering of craft stalls with some produce resellers, although Nick says that many food writers and restaurant chefs also attend this market and this means that the exposure and brand awareness for growers produce is very good. .

The Pyrmount Market is typically attended by between 4,000 and 5,000 people per day, and double this number at Christmas, and Nick, like many stall holders, regularly sell out by 9.30-10.00 am. The average purse for shoppers at this market is around $120, which means that there is big money up for grabs at these types of markets, with te possibility of half a million dollars changing hands between the 80 – 90 stallholders and the consumers. That is a lot of buying power and a powerful incentive for farmers to market direct. Stallholders pay $220 to buy in, and must carry $10m public liability insurance.

The North Sydney Market attracts around 1500 - 1800 people, many of whom are dedicated shoppers. He says that these shoppers are definitely going for the food, not just the experience, and that they will spend money for quality produce.

Nick says the markets are great exposure for his products and for organic produce in general. It is a cash business so there is no waiting for payment from agents, and the buyers appreciate meeting the producer.

Nick has taken a big interest in claims of organic production by other traders and has asked management for evidence of organic, chiefly production of a certification document. He has convinced many stallholders to obtain certification to protect the customers, lead by example and add value to their product.

Nick says the trade at these markets is large and has attracted the attention of the NSW Farmers federation, who are now involved in starting another market at Warwick farm, The rules for this market will state that sellers must also be the producer, and for value added product, they must produce the major component. He feels that once per week markets are not as promising as the monthly markets. These become much more of an event and people go well out of their way to attend. With weekly markets, he feels the attendance drops off a little, and they are a much greater commitment for the grower. This observation may apply to Nick and other value added producers, but it may not be the same for fresh produce, where the grower has a constant supply, unless they are lucky enough to be able to reach a number of markets throughout the month.

Nick says there are other markets, and more planned, in areas like Bowral, Kiama and Castle Hill. Some markets favour fresh produce, but as the demographics are different, he feels that someone like himself ahs to be selective as to which markets to attend, as not all consumers will part with $20 per bottle for high quality olive oil.

Nick also suggests that it takes a group of quality growers to make a market work, and that growers should talk to each other about which markets to support, go in together in numbers, and work to exclude or convert growers making unfair claims, whether than be unsubstantiated organic claims or falsely representing themselves as producers when they are in fact resellers.

Olive grove at Ellengrove
Olive grove at Ellengrove

Nick estimates that he sells at least 70 - 80% of Ellengrove oil at the markets. He also distributes to some specialist outlets and some bulk oil to restaurants. He says oil tends to move slower in delicatessens, where there is likely to be up to 30 different oils on display. He says selling in these store requires promotional events and tastings, such as the platters he makes available at the farmers markets. These are simple baguettes, with basil, bocconcini, tomato, cracked pepper and olive oil. It makes a very colourful and tasty display and introduces consumer to new ways of using an high grade extra virgin.

In summary, Nick says farmers markets take away the pain of dealing with wholesalers, and are a "super niche market" for premium quality value added product.

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