Olio Bello: Organic Efficiency at its Best

Olio Bello, a certified organic producer of olive oil and associated products, is a small business with a growing reputation in Margaret River’s ecotourism industry. JOHN POWER takes a ‘behind the scenes’ peek into day-to-day operations.

OPERATOR: Olio Bello (Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil)
REPRESENTATIVE: Brett Roberts, General Manager
LOCATION: Margaret River region, Western Australia
CONTACT: https://oliobello.com

Olio Bello, an award-winning olive farm about 250kms south of Perth, Western Australia, is a “small operation in the world of commercial olive oil production,” according to General Manager Brett Roberts.

Hand picking is an important feature of Olio Bello’s farming methodology.

The scope of the business, however, is far grander than its 320 acres might suggest, including a café, six renowned glamorous camping (‘glamping’) bungalows, broad ranges of gourmet foods and health and beauty products, as well as a fully equipped olive press for in-house and external oil processing applications.

So, though small compared to industrial processors, Olio Bello is a boutique facility with wide-ranging consumer and tourism attributes of international stature.

With 8,000 olive trees set amongst 14 groves, the property was established 25 years ago as a traditional olive farm. “But in the last five years, in particular, we have diversified a great deal out of necessity,” Brett explains. “It was important for us to broaden the base, so we are now still ‘front and centre’ an organic olive oil producer, but the other arms of our organisation – the hospitality, the food, the accommodation, the skin care and gourmet food – are becoming equally significant.”

Based on its ‘direct to the public’ business model, the property welcomes some 75,000 visitors per year.

ORGANIC FOUNDATIONS

Organic farming practices, Brett believes, have been fundamental to the successful growth and diversification of the enterprise. By embracing a non-intensive approach to farming – and shunning synthetic pesticides and herbicides – the property was well placed several years ago to incorporate guest accommodation into its footprint. That is to say, the property had great appeal as a safe and non-toxic environment in which guests could wander and explore their surroundings at all times of the year, free from the mechanical and chemical hazards that might be present on a non-organic property.

Similarly, the production of organic extra virgin olive oil lent itself to the creation of cosmetics- and food-grade products of the highest quality, further enhancing the diversity of product ranges arising from the oil production.

“All our different [business] arms have a story to tell – they are ways of communicating directly with the customers,” Brett says. “I think the more corporate the world becomes the more it opens doors to little niche producers like us to find our reason to exist and prosper.”

Organic farming methods, unsurprisingly, have strongly influenced the nature of day-to-day operations and the equipment needed to complete seasonal tasks.

“When dealing with the whole philosophy of an organic farm, people think sometimes that it takes fewer resources and less science – I come from the other direction: I think you need to prevent problems rather that deal with them with synthetic solutions down the track, and that means solutions might be complex even though you’re using simple equipment and perhaps more manual labour.”

Policies involving preventative actions rather than reactive treatments have resulted in a highly efficient fleet of farm equipment, which by most farming standards would be described as lean. Whereas non-organic farms rely heavily on spray and applicator equipment to combat pests or rejuvenate soils, for example, Olio Bello’s regenerative farming techniques require a more straightforward fleet of machinery. 

The farm runs three tractors – a 55hp Coyote, as well as 85hp John Holland and Ford units – and a Coyote Ride-On mower and a push mower. There are also a variety of tools used for tree pruning and sawing, including (battery backpack) electric pruning saws, three chainsaws, and an arbor saw. Handheld electric picking machines supplement manual secateurs and pole saws. Most handheld equipment consists of STIHL-branded devices, as supported by a local dealership in the nearby town of Cowaramup.

Approximately 200 sheep roam freely throughout the property, greatly reducing the need for grass slashing.

“We still pick by hand, so we have a range of battery-operated hand rakes and three nets; we put the nets under the trees like an upside down umbrella, and collect the olives that way.” Hand picking results in a staggered three-month pressing process, usually between the months of April and June, and ensures that the fruit is as undamaged as possible when harvested. Pressing is conducted on-site using a Pieralisi press that can process approximately one tonne of olives per hour.

ELECTRIC FUTURE

Electric equipment, Brett says, is becoming increasingly important on the property, particularly now that solar power has been installed on-site.

In years to come, he hopes, the property will be able to operate off-grid, which will pave the way for even greater use of electric equipment that can be charged using the property’s own power.

“It is becoming increasingly viable to be independent of the grid,” Brett says. “And not only viable, but given our organic philosophy, that’s where we’d like to be as well.”

In the meantime, Olio Bello continues to rationalise its primary equipment in line with organic principles. Perhaps the most clear-cut example of equipment rationalization at Olio Bello is the presence of 200 sheep. These sheep are free to roam throughout most of the property, and do the job of umpteen slashers. They also provide a fertilising service.

The property maintains a mulcher and slasher, so pruning waste can be collected and used as mulch. Waste from the olive pressing process is also a valuable source of compost. When olives are pressed, approximately 85 percent of the processed material is a waste pulp called pomace. Pomace, mixed with leaves and a natural fertiliser such as chicken manure, breaks down over a two-year period to produce compost, which is then spread around trees.

Irrigation takes place between late December and March using dam water, which is pumped throughout the property’s olive groves using two electric Grundfos pumps, including a variable speed unit that can pump different volumes depending on the size of the grove.

Water consumption is regulated in the local area as a means of conserving resources and maintaining fair distribution amongst fellow landowners, hence the particular suitability of olives as a crop. Olives tend to benefit from ‘deficit irrigation’, whereby watering is kept to a bare minimum in order to encourage strong root growth and flavoursome fruit.

ECOTOURISM APPEAL

Efficiencies derived from organic farming, Brett has discovered, are self-perpetuating: the avoidance of harsh synthetic chemicals leads to improved soils and plant health, which in turn create more robust crops that are in less need of additives and amendments or pest controls. Lace bug, for instance, might affect 40–50 trees on the property at any given time, whereas infestations tend to be ubiquitous on conventionally farmed groves. The difference, Brett says, is that naturally robust, organically grown trees are less vulnerable to attack from pests in the first place.

Perhaps the greatest affirmation of Olio Bello’s organic farming practices, however, is that day-to-day activities have become an ecotourism attraction in their own right. Guests staying at Olio’s Bello’s glamping bungalows often take an interest in the on-site oil production, and immerse themselves in the practicalities of the property as part of their adventure. For this reason, equipment used on the property is not hidden from view, as might happen at conventional farming properties with accommodation; rather the workshops and sheds are in plain sight between the café and the bungalows as honest features of the property.

Olio Bello now boasts a range of organic products, including olive oil, gourmet foods, and cosmetic and skin care items.

The organic philosophy underpinning the property, Brett says, serves as a strong template for future growth. “We’ve just planted a little vineyard and will move into producing a little bit of wine,” he says, “and we also hope to expand our accommodation offering in the next few years. So, there is a genuine belief that the [business] model works.”