The good oil on a tree-change

By Country News

Life has knitted together beautifully for Ceilidh and Charles Meo.

The husband and wife olive growers were ‘weekenders’ for almost a decade, before making the tree-change leap from Melbourne to Toolleen in 2017.

With 32ha of land, 12 of which are under grove, the Meos juggled city and country life for 10 years.

You could say they are now semi-retired. Though Ceilidh, a former client relationship manager turned textiles artist, and Charles, an IT consultant who works remotely from the farm, are still ‘extremely busy’.

‘‘People just don’t understand how time and labour-intensive farming is,’’ Mrs Meo said.

‘‘I think that was the biggest shock when we bought Apulia Grove.

‘‘We had just two weeks to figure out how to harvest and process olives. Luckily a couple were happy to show us the ropes at their grove in Maldon.’’

Their farm, Apulia Grove, is powered by 100 per cent solar energy, with a generator for back-up.

The farm is designed and managed on permaculture principles, a passion Mrs Meo has held since the age of eight.

‘‘Our farm plan is to help regenerate the land as well as expand our business and increase our self-sufficiency,’’ she said.

The Meos produce their own brand of extra virgin olive oil, which won its first award early in production.

However the business mostly derives income from processing olives for others.

‘‘We were travelling up to three hours one way to get our own olives processed,’’ Mrs Meo said.

‘‘The main place we went to however was only 45 minutes away. Unfortunately they were burnt out in Black Saturday.

‘‘Though they replanted and rebuilt, they didn’t replace their smaller machine. So we thought, why not buy our own? There was a gap in the market.’’

The move turned out to be a smart one. In addition to harvesting 2500 of their own trees annually, a growing number of small-scale producers are coming to them for help.

They process fruit from 60 to 100 customers a year, with a minimum of 50kg. Everything is done from inside a strawbale shed at the back of their home.

‘‘Strawbale helps to regulate the temperature of the production facility year-round,’’ Mrs Meo said.

‘‘These lead to greater energy savings and oil quality.’’

Short to medium term, the outlook for Apulia Grove is positive.

‘‘Olives are hardy and grow well in central Victorian,’’ Mrs Meo said.

‘‘They are drought-resistant and unlike Western Australia, we have no fungus issues.

‘‘The only real threats are kangaroos, hares and frost.’’

Mr Meo, previously a director at the Australian Olive Association, said the domestic industry faced ‘‘enormous consumer awareness challenges’’.

‘‘What many people don’t realise is that imported olive oil generally contain a mix of oils,’’ Mr Meo said.

‘‘International producers do not have to meet the same standards when it comes to the composition of the oil and the labelling.

‘‘Consumers don’t know this, and they may reach for an international brand, thinking it’s higher quality.

‘‘But it’s not. The product is mixed with a cheap oil like canola.

‘‘Australian producers can’t compete with the lower price point, it’s very frustrating.’’

Mrs Meo said more work could be done to promote the health benefits of extra virgin olive oil.

‘‘Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) is the highest quality olive oil available, extracted from the olive fruit without the use of any heat or chemicals,’’ she said.

‘‘But many people are still afraid to cook with it.

‘‘Aside from having the highest smoke point, the health benefits are vast.

‘‘It can protect against cardio-vascular disease, stroke, lower the risk of type-two diabetes, improve bone health, even potentially reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and age-related dementia.

‘‘The best way to know you’re getting the best is to source locally and check for the Australian certification triangle.’’

—Vanessa Wiltshire