Close

Carbon farming with Simunovich Olive Estate

Air miles? Bah. Branka Simunovich’s olives are carbon-positive, thank you, and she has the papers to prove it. Andy Kenworthy visits a very ambitious eco-venture

magazine spread

Photographs by Alistair Guthrie

Air miles? Bah. Branka Simunovich’s olives are carbon-positive, thank you, and she has the papers to prove it. Andy Kenworthy visits a very ambitious eco-venture

Shortly after entering the Simunovich Olive Estate, about 18 months after emigrating from the UK, my body’s internal calendar finally blows up.

I thought I’d adjusted reasonably well. But as I turn into the imposing stone gates of the estate, I sense a little boing and a broken cuckoo dangling on a spring from where my understanding of the seasons should be.

It’s July—summer where I come from, winter here—but after a frosty start it has dawned sunny and warm. I wind my car window down and try to relax. I am in Bombay, a 40-minute drive south of Auckland. Outside, lines of olive trees laden with fruit march over green hills threaded with silver streams. I am rolling through a perfectly European panorama of harvest.

In 1999, Ivan and Branka Simunovich bought five titles, covering a total of 86 hectares of farmland, for what she describes as their “retirement project”. The entire site was then landscaped into a mind-boggling network of terraces and 40,000 olive trees were planted, their growth accelerated by days like this one.

The Simunoviches have so far invested $13 million in the venture and employ 43 people. The property is now the biggest privately owned olive estate in New Zealand. Olives from here have figured in the Olives New Zealand Awards every year since they started. This year they reckon on producing 70,000 to 80,000 litres of oil—up 250 percent from last year—are exporting to Australia and have their sights firmly set on markets further afield. The company now creates more than 30 different olive oil and cosmetic products, and is working hard to develop more.

Branka Simunovich tells me her husband “doesn’t understand small numbers”, and a glance at the family history shows why. About 40 years ago Ivan Simunovich opened a small fish and chip shop in Glen Innes. He then set up a fishing business to keep the fryers stocked. In October 2004, the family sold Simunovich Fisheries for a reported $137 million.

You could see the whole estate as an exercise in recycling. Money earned trawling the seabed for scampi is now being turned into a model of sustainable business. “The most economical way of doing things is the sustainable way,” says Simunovich

So you could see the whole estate as an exercise in recycling. Money earned trawling the seabed for scampi is now being turned into a model of sustainable business and environmental care. For Branka, the environmental considerations are an integral part of the economics of her operation.

“The most economical way of doing things is the sustainable way,” she says. “You don’t plant a grove only for yourself. It will be available for generations and generations—otherwise, what’s the point of planting it?”

So it surprises me that the site is not certified organic. It’s partly because of the need to treat occasional fungal infections on the trees, caused by a wetter climate than olives are usually grown in. Simunovich says she could probably find legitimate ways of obtaining certification, but would see this as cheating. She stands by the way the estate operates and wants to be as open about it as possible.

She certainly isn’t averse to the paperwork. As well as going through the extremely lengthy monitoring and evaluation processes necessary to export to the UK, the US and Japan, the estate is now in the second stage of a full carbon-use audit. This looks likely to give it the status of not merely a ‘carbon neutral’ enterprise, but a ‘carbon positive’ venture—allowing the company to quash any concerns overseas about ‘olive miles’.

This is because the growth of the trees is helping to combat climate change to such an extent that it more than offsets the estate’s other activities. In theory, this could be another potential earner: selling carbon credits to more polluting operations.

It also opens the doors to the potential for ‘green’ exporting, not just for the estate, but also for other eco-savvy NZ companies that follow their lead—offsetting the food miles inherent in sending their goods overseas with the good the estate is doing here.

Entering the processing plant generating all this potential is like going into a miniaturised and modernised Willy Wonka’s olive oil factory. The eco-logic behind the business is evident from the outset. The plant is located in the centre of the property, with the terracing scheme designed to minimise the distance from the trees to the factory. Simunovich says they even tried running sheep through the groves to mow the grass. “But we aren’t sheep farmers. I ended up with about seven lambs following me everywhere I went, and then I couldn’t eat lamb anymore.”

magazine spread

Simunovich left her homeland on the island of Brač in Croatia to escape the country’s civil war. Brač is a place without running streams. Traditionally, each family tends its own small grove of olive trees on its rocky slopes. “Where I come from water is a very valuable resource,” she says. “When I saw water running through every gully here I thought I’d found gold!”

The picking is done in large boxes to reduce return trips to the plantation. The olives come straight from the surrounding trees and are mashed, emulsified, washed and stored. It’s a continuous process that maintains the oil’s natural preservatives and means it can be stored for an extra two years, remaining edible for up to five.

The plant uses state-of-the-art machinery from Italian company Pieralisi. Branka runs seminars and workshops on its use, hoping to help create a truly world-class olive industry in New Zealand.

There are no piles of olives on the floor, no bags to split, and almost no waste. Every batch is monitored during the process and tested afterwards. Pips, pulp, leaves and any other materials are composted, mulched back into the trees or used to feed local cows. “We are always looking for ways to put everything through the full cycle,” says Simunovich.

Water use is a particular example, for reasons that go back to Branka’s past. Maybe olive trees and New Zealand’s immigrant population recognise something of themselves in each other, as they have both tended to be pioneers of marginal land.

Simunovich left her homeland on the island of Brač in Croatia in the early 1990s to escape the country’s civil war. Brač is a place without running streams. Traditionally, each family tends its own small grove of olive trees on its rocky slopes, cultivates grapes, raises animals and grows vegetables. As a child she learned the crafts of making olive oils and various creams. “Where I come from water is a very valuable resource,” she says. “When I saw water running through every gully here I thought I’d found gold!”

On the estate there is no mains sewerage or piped water supply from outside. The water comes from within the boundary, and the waste is processed on-site. So, for example, the machine that washes the olives filters and recycles its water, requiring only one-fifth the water of a conventional system.

Next door, in the skincare section, the jaws of a machine that seals 40 tubes of cosmetics a minute require water-cooling. The usual practice is to flush the water straight through and out of the system, but here a separate machine recycles it. The process would have required 1,000 litres a year; it now uses just 15. There is another closed water system for the air conditioning. The company even cleans the place with a detergent made on-site from a recipe derived from its own range of soaps.

Scientist Sushma Sharma, who has a background in botany and a Masters degree in biochemistry, oversees the whole operation. She tests each product before it goes into production, working to surpass the consistency and quality standards which could otherwise become barriers to exporting the goods. The latest skincare range, Tebe, includes extracts from the olive leaf to make even more use of the trees and is intended as the company’s lead export product.

But the driving force is Branka Simunovich, who was born into a tradition of growing olives and may well have olive oil in her veins. She drinks a small amount of it each morning as a health tonic. “There’s a tradition,” she says. “If you touch an olive tree each day you will feel better. It is the holy tree; it comes from heaven.”

mugshot

Stephen Robinson/Simunovich Estate

Seasonal love

The warm welcome chef Peter Thornley extends as I enter the Bracu restaurant on the edge of the Simunovich Olive Estate was part of the Simunovich plan from the beginning.

Well, sort of. The restaurant exists to provide this welcome to highlight the estate and its produce, but Thornley wasn’t originally supposed to be here. There’s nothing forced or businesslike about the beaming smile and enthusiasm, however.“I was only taken on as a consultant,” he explains. “But I fell in love with the place.” Thornley might fall in love readily—he’s been married and divorced three times—but it would be hard not to see the appeal of his new venture. The restaurant was purpose-built by extending the original settlement’s kauri farmhouse, and enjoys peaceful views of the estate.

In line with the sustainable ethos of the rest of the venture, the kitchens were constructed on top of two carefully designed water settlement tanks, which collect all the waste from the cooking and toilet facilities. Once filtered, the water irrigates the trees.

As we stroll through the spotless brushed steel and hardwood interior, the staff limbering up for lunch, Thornley explains how this green approach finds its way onto his menu.

“I know it is really important to make this sustainable. We have to look after the Earth,” he says. “My God, we’re only here for a short time. So the menu is set by the local seasons. I cook what is good and available in the area. If it’s not fresh, I don’t cook it.”

Imagine an expanded traditional farmhouse kitchen, with one of the nation’s top chefs in it. Staff churn their own butter, and create their own yeast by fermenting mushrooms or beer. They bake their bread daily in special twisted-willow bread baskets. They get their oysters from Clevedon’s renowned coastline, and some of their select vegetables from Joy West, a local gardener in her 70s. “We look for heritage varieties, from when tomatoes really tasted like tomatoes,” says Thornley.

The only thing he will serve which isn’t totally fresh has been preserved by what he calls “good, old-fashioned” methods, like making jams and pickles.

At $120 per person for dinner, your party isn’t likely to be overrun with green hippie types sloshing snakebite over your shoulder, but Thornley has recently introduced a simplified lunch menu aimed at encouraging more people to the place. A trip to the estate for lunch should demonstrate to anyone that environmentalism doesn’t necessarily mean skimping on the luxuries.