A small Whanganui farm neglected for years is producing olive oil from trees originally planted for decoration.

The 3.5ha block bordering the Upokongaro Stream and between the new and old Parapara roads is owned by PJ Warren and his mother, Maureen. It was neglected while Warren was working overseas as a teacher.

On his return in early 2014 only a few of the original 500 olive trees were left alive. They were mostly Olea barnea and Manzanilla olives, from Spain - the varieties recommended in 1999.

Warren said those varieties don't grow so well in Whanganui and Horowhenua. But back in 1999 he also planted Italian Ascolano olives along the road - mainly for decoration. They weren't considered commercial.

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On his return in 2014 there were 60 trees left alive and he harvested 170kg of olives from them as an experiment. To everyone's surprise they yielded about 25 litres of oil.

It was encouraging, and Warren and his partner have since planted another 140 Italian Ascolano, Leccino and Pendolino olives, and Greek Koroneiki olives. He's been told 200 trees is enough for a part-time job, and that if there are more it's hard to find enough workers for the harvest.

The best producing olive trees have been the Italian Ascolano variety. Photo / Lewis Gardner
The best producing olive trees have been the Italian Ascolano variety. Photo / Lewis Gardner

In late 2014 Warren did some training and changed the property to run on biodynamic principles. It has meant adding chickens, geese, ducks and horned Jacob sheep to provide manure, and also buying biodynamic preparations and seaweed mixtures to feed the soil. He doesn't use commercial fertiliser.

A biodynamic farm is a whole living organism, including plants, soil and animals, he said. Techniques include composting, cover crops, crop rotation and fallow before planting and grazing.

It might still look neglected, but an organic farm has to have a variety of flowering plants and long grass, to provide habitat for beneficial insects. This one also has apple, plum and fig trees, vegetables in raised beds and long grass.

Warren sells some of the fruit at the Whanganui River Markets.

"Our biggest earner was figs. We pay most of our bills with figs," he said.

He or his partner make daily visits from their Whanganui East house. His other workers are people on the Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF) scheme. Some of the French WWOOFers have been especially useful, because they know olives and biodynamics.

"We have had a lot of them, and we learned a lot from them."

Birds eat olives from the trees as soon as they start to change colour. For humans an olive harvest is labour intensive, done using plastic olive rakes to pull the olives down on to bed sheets laid out on the ground.

The May 2018 harvest was the best yet - perhaps helped by a WWOOFer who painted all the tree trunks up to 1m with a biodynamic tree paste of mud, compost and cow manure.

There were nearly 700kg of olives from just 25 Ascolano and Koroneiki trees. They yielded 80 litres of oil in three pressings.

The pressing and bottling was done at Paul and Karen Andersons' Patria Grove olive business in Kaiwhaiki. It cost Warren $1 per kilo of olives.

The oil has a Moa Valley label, designed by Ella Grant. Photo/ Lewis Gardner
The oil has a Moa Valley label, designed by Ella Grant. Photo/ Lewis Gardner

He's called the oil produced Moa Valley, because it comes from a place not far from the swamp where moa bones were dug up in the 1800s.

Moa Valley olive oil is sold at the River Exchange and Barter (REBs) stall at the Whanganui markets, and the REBs stall at All Saints Church Hall in Whanganui East, from 3-5.30pm on Tuesdays.

The cost is $18 for a 250ml bottle. If the oil were tested for acidity it would probably come out as extra virgin. It's quite a strong yellow-green in colour, and tastes smoky and grassy.

Warren intends to keep production small and boutique, selling only to local people and tourists.