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By Neville Passmore



Reagan's Ford Estate in Gingin have been growing olives on a commercial scale for six and a half years. The grove is located in sandy country in an area that is similar to that at New Norcia, planted by Benedictine Monk Dom Salvado in the 1860's. This historic and beautiful New Norcia grove says emphatically that olives can succeed in the heat of a Western Australian summer.

The modern day grove planted at Reagan's Ford is a far cry from the one at New Norcia. 90,000 trees are in super high density plantings with just a metre and a half between trees. These are trimmed and trained into a hedge structure so all maintenance and picking can be done with tree straddling equipment.

Worldwide olive oil prices are low; this represents a real profit challenge to producers. The estate has taken a radically different approach to olive plantings and management to minimise costs. Apart from the intensive planting, innovative irrigation and fertigation technologies have been employed. Most of the trees are 6 years old and already there are real savings to be seen in water, electricity, fertiliser and labour compared to conventional groves.

Deep sandy soils over a clay base spells fast drainage. This can remove both moisture and plant food from the root zone. Soil surface temperatures can climb to 70 C in summer and in these circumstances evaporation rates can be extraordinarily high. Olives can survive with 400mm of annual rainfall but they do not produce a viable commercial crop. Irrigation is necessary to boost productivity.

One of the keys to the success of the Regans Ford Grove has been the use of a composted organic soil conditioner called OSC sourced from C-Wise in Nambeelup. This finely textured material was applied as a mulch. Most mulches are a mix of fine and chunky materials which allow rainwater to penetrate readily. When rain falls on this fine mulch it develops a wind resistant seal or crust which also dramatically cuts evaporation. The sealing aspect of the mulch is overcome in irrigation by having the irrigation dripline buried under the mulch. As a result moisture is applied into and below the mulch by computer controlled micro-pulse irrigation technology, that puts the water right beside the roots. The theory behind the micro-pulse emitters is to keep water and nutrients in the top 40 to 50cm of the soil profile, where most feeder roots are to be found. A 60 cm wide layer of composted OSC was applied.

A control plot without mulch applied was used for comparative purposes to test the impact of the mulch. This clearly demonstrated that shoot and stem growth was markedly greater, resulting in a 15% increase in production. The number and weight of fresh berries was significantly higher. Soil moisture holding and cation exchange (the ability of soil to hold and use nutrients from fertilisers and biology activity), was dramatically increased. With the addition of more water and food, the roots grow rapidly in response and the whole plant prospers. With these outcomes, the OCS has become the norm for the farm. The mulch is now reapplied every 3 years.

As a result of the increased water and nutrient holding capacity of the mulched soil, the farm has been able to reduce irrigation which yields a saving in electricity for pumping. Also fertiliser applications have been significantly reduced and these saving go straight to the bottom line.

An unforeseen result was that the farm has been able to operate well within the water allocation. This means that the estate can now look at utilising that saved water for growing another crop. Currently trials are being undertaken to produce blueberries on the farm. This fits in well as picking takes place around Christmas well away from the olive harvest season. Blueberries require a specialised, acid reacting soil which is not available on the farm so investigation is moving in the direction of potted shrubs. C-Wise are working with Reagan's Ford Estate to develop a suitable potting mix.

One measure of the success of the grove is medals for olive oil quality. The Estate was a gold medal winner at the Perth Royal Extra Virgin Olive Oil Show 2013, in the category of production volumes of 5000 litres or more. Their oil was pitched against 17 other competitors including a number from the eastern states. The judges described the entry as "grassy and fragrant aromas. Good olive fruit and very good bitterness and pungency lingering. Complex with good length".

My palate is not as well informed as the judges but to me its a lovely full fresh flavour that is delightful with a torn off piece of crusty bread and a light sprinkle of WA lake salt.

 b_262_393_16777215_00_images_IMG_8816.jpgHedgerow planting increases productivity