Drought, Not Fire, Remains the Bane of Australian Olive Growers

Australia's olive growers have mostly been spared from the wildfires that have been ravaging the country. Persistent drought, however, continues to cause concern. The wildfires raging across Eastern Australia can be seen from space.

As wildfires continue to burn across large portions of southeastern Australia, olive growers are reporting that their groves have largely been left undamaged.

“The only physical damage to a grove occurred in South Australia and that wasn’t badly burned,” Greg Seymour, the CEO of the Australian Olive Association (AOA), told Olive Oil Times. “They are the only ones who we’ve had reports of being directly burned by the fire.”

However, Seymour cautioned that this remains an incomplete picture. He has not heard back from every grower in the affected areas and pointed out that fires are continuing to burn across the country.

At the time of writing and based on the information currently available, it appears unlikely that Australia’s 2020 harvest will be directly impacted by the fires. Instead, Seymour argues that one of the symptoms of these fires – the long and persistent drought – and some unforeseen repercussions of the fire are more likely to impact the upcoming harvest.

“What we’ve seen is a massive exodus of insects and other animals from the impacted areas,” Seymour said. “They are heading somewhere that is green and safe. We’ve seen olive groves with quite high levels of pests, such as lacewing, that normally wouldn’t occur at these types of levels and we’re yet to see the repercussions of this type of migration on the olive groves.”

Seymour also warned that peak fire season is about to begin in Australia, meaning active wildfires may become larger and new wildfires will inevitably start.

“We’re moving right into peak fire season now and there’s no rain predicted until March, so this isn’t all over,” he said. “It will come up again as soon as the weather changes. The fires don’t just go out.”

And even when the fires do go out, the harm they cause to agriculture goes far beyond the immediate damage of smoke and burning plants.

“Wildfires have many points of impact on horticultural businesses,” Steve Milton, an olive grower and the president of the Western Australian Olive Council, told Olive Oil Times. “Topsoil, compost and mulches are impacted seriously through the loss of microorganisms and the microbiotics essential for building a soil ecology that can sustain plants. This takes a long time to build or rebuild and can be very expensive.”

Milton also pointed out that fighting wildfires requires vast amounts of water that usually comes from rivers and local dams at the expense of agriculture.

“In my instance, water loss from my dams through it being used in fighting last year’s fires, followed by a very dry winter has resulted in my dams being seriously depleted to the point that I can’t afford to irrigate my grove this year,” he said. “My trees are stressed and I find a lot of fruit on the ground.”

“Will these things have an impact on the coming harvest?,” Milton asked. “Most likely for me.”

Australia’s unprecedentedly large and early wildfires are a symptom of a much larger problem that is having a far greater impact on olive growers and agriculturalists of all types across Australia: not enough rainfall.

“There has been no rain. That’s the problem,” Seymour said. “For loads of people, they just haven’t had rain or any meaningful moisture for two seasons.”

According to Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology (BOM), 2019 was both the hottest and driest year on record. Based on research that the BOM has done, this appears to be unlikely to change in the near future.

Australia is currently in a very strong positive Indian Ocean dipole, where cooler ocean temperatures off the coast of the continent and hotter temperatures off the coast of Africa lead to winds blowing from east to west. These winds take the moisture away from the Australian coast and deposit more rain on South Asia and East Africa. More