Eagle Vale Olives

Awarded Australia’s best green table olives, Western Australian family-owned and operated Eagle Vale Olives is a niche farming success story. Operated collaboratively by Gerard and Leanne Bunter and Eric and Jill Dixon, Leanne recently shared the tale of Eagle Vale Olives with Noteworthy’s Caroline Fowler.

“Gerard and I originally owned a freight business in Geraldton but our interests were more in farming and living on the land. An illness in our family prompted us to research what crops we could grow that had health benefits and we discovered olives,” Leanne said.

“During 1995 Gerard and I, along with my parents and our business partners Eric and Jill Dixon, eschewed the advice that olives would not grow in such extreme climates and planted 3000 trees in the Chapman Valley which is 470 kilometres north of Perth.

We live in a Mediterranean climate to which the trees are adapted and we saw people growing them in their backyard in Geraldton so we thought, why not? Underground water in the Chapman Valley is plentiful — we sunk a bore and also built a 3785 cubic metre catchment dam.

Our first harvest was during 1997 and we started with the production of extra virgin olive oil (EVOO). The quality surpassed our expectations. The warmer climate tends to produce mild oil and this gives us the flexibility to infuse it with different flavours.

Confidence in what we had achieved to that point, drove our decision to diversify and introduce both green and black pickled table olives into the product mix. This was an important decision as the price of olive oil alone was not sustainable as a wage for four people.

The 3000 trees is not enough for our production requirements so we purchase olives from two other producers – one with 7000 trees and another with 3500.

Harvest and production

Harvest is during February and March and we employ up to 30 staff – mostly local – to hand pick the fruit. The process is labour intensive as every olive is hand graded for size and quality before they are put into tanks for treatment. Between harvests we employ part-time staff to make the marinades and prepare the olives for pre-booked orders.

Once the hand picking is complete we start harvesting the olives for the production of EVOO. This is not as labour intensive as we use a machine but the fruit must be crushed within 24 hours of harvest. Therefore the timing of delivery to the Gingin crushing plant is critical. We backload one tonne cubes of oil to the farm where the oil is transferred into refrigerated air-tight vats to be filtered. The final filtered product is stored in a container which varies in size depending on the customer purchase order.

Quality the key

The whole process of harvest, storage and transport is critical in the production of both table olives and oil. Storage in cool temperatures with no exposure to the air is vital.

Olive oil, like fruit juice, goes rancid very quickly if not kept in pristine condition. Part of our job is to educate the consumer of correct food storage practices so that quality can be maintained. Filtered olive oil will keep well for up to two years if stored in the correct conditions.

Marketing a full time job

When we are not harvesting, the marketing and development of our products is a full-time job. We employ a full-time staff member who markets our products to restaurant chefs, delis and gourmet grocery stores. The fact that we are a local, family-owned business gives us a lot of traction amongst these food outlets. Taste-testing at various supermarkets also gets our brand out there and we run these in Perth and in the larger centres of northern WA.

The website has been instrumental in marketing and sales of Eagle Vale Olives products, especially since people have become more comfortable with online shopping. The list of outlet stores to which we supply can be viewed on the website as well as our long list of national awards (46 in total) since 2002.

The drive to diversify

Our survival has depended on diversification. People are always asking what new products we have available and it’s grasping these opportunities and finding out what people want which has helped the business to expand and meet market demand.

The business went from only producing olives for oil to marinating the olives and including tapenade and dukkah into the product mix. Today the business has a whole range of natural EVOO skin care products and gift hampers.

WA’s first pitting and slicing machine

Our latest venture has been the commissioning of WA’s first pitting and slicing machine. Previously, pitted olives were only available in WA as an imported product from Spain and Italy. The machine, which was purchased from Seville, Spain, will allow us to sell local pitted olives to gourmet stores and supermarkets across WA. Our customers were continuously asking after fresh local pitted olives which drove our decision to invest in the hi-tech machine.

Grazing the grove

Sheep are an integral part of our olive operation. We run 200- 300 Merinos, sometimes buying in fat lambs during winter to sell into the spring market. The sheep graze the grass between the rows of olive trees, reducing the fire risk and controlling the weeds. When the pasture becomes too short the sheep begin to eat the bark and the olives on the trees – surprisingly they don’t mind the bitterness! At this point the sheep are removed from the grove; some will be sold while others are relocated to new pasture. The feed situation determines what number we carry from year to year and we grow some oaten hay used for supplementary feeding during Autumn.”

[from Noteworthy Edition 36, 2011]

Eagle Vale Olives took root when its owners were embracing a Mediterranean lifestyle and diet. Finding olives difficult to come by at the time they decided that as they were living in a Mediterranean climate why shouldn’t they grow and produce their own olives and olive oil.

“We bought 150 acres that had absolutely nothing on it in 1993,” Jill Dixon said.

“It was just a very pretty property and we thought, ‘oh well, we’ll just buy this as a retirement stock.’

“From there we started doing a lot of reading and research and it was two years later in 1995 that we decided we would plant our first trees.”

Eagle Vale’s beginnings were low key as it set about just growing olives to make olive oil, but the company’s profile took off in 2006, when it won a taste-off in search of Australia’s best pickled olive in 2006.

“That was from black and green, everything and that was Best Olive in Australia,” Jill said.

“Then in 2007 and 2008 we took Australia’s best green olives. So we have taken the top awards for the last three years.”

Eagle Vale’s award winning olives are well supported by its oils, which usually pick up a bronze or silver medal.

Producing in such a warm climate means they produce very gentle, fruity oil, which sometimes can be overlooked by judges when they come up against stronger flavoured oils.

“We have never won a gold medal but having said that, our customers really love the delicate, fruity oil,” Jill said positively.

“They don’t really like the strong oils so we’re not really upset about not winning because we still sell out every year, we know that we’re not going to have any left.”

[from Spice Magazine Autumn 2009]