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Oils of innovation

Innovation from the grove to the shelf is one of the reasons Cobram Estate is Australia’s most popular extra virgin olive oil.

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Cobram Estate is a true success story. Since plating their first olive tree just 20 years ago, founders Rob McGavin and Paul Riordan have grown Cobram Estate to become Australia’s leading producer of premium extra virgin olive oil.

At Boundary Bend in north-western Victoria, Cobram Estate has established Australia’s largest olive farm. Flying into the groves, the sight of row upon row of olive trees, their silvery green leaves glistening against the vibrant red soil, is breathtaking. There are 1.3 million trees spread out across 6500 hectares. 

Business acumen has established Cobram Estate as one of Australia’s leading supermarket brands, and its burgeoning export market in Europe, USA and Asia is further proof of its remarkable growth.

But it is investment in technologies in every step of the process from the grove to the supermarket shelf that truly underpins Cobram Estate’s success.

“Research and innovation has always been part of our over arching theme,” says Rob down the phone line from a business trip to the USA. “We’ve always done it to get more yields of fruit or oil, or improve quality. Ultimately, it means we can give consumers premium quality olive oil at the cheapest price possible.”

In fact, so great is their contribution that last year their laboratory was named Best Institution for Research and Education for Extra Virgin Olive Oil at the global Health & Food, Extra Virgin Olive Oil Awards.

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Intuitive Irrigation

One of the most impressive innovations is their irrigation system. Sitting on the edge of the outback, the desert-like terrain of the Boundary Bend site is perfect for olive trees as they are resilient to drought. However, they still need irrigating. Rather than just drip feed, Rob and his team have implemented a computerised and mechanised soil moisture monitoring and irrigation system.

“Every 30 minutes, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, we get readings of moisture of the soil across the groves at different depths; 30cm, 45cm, 60cm and one metre,” says Rob. “From this, we can see when the tree is using water and when it’s not, so we match its needs; how much we irrigate and when, so we can have the best possible use of water while maximising quality of the fruit.”

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High Quality Harvesting

Cobram Estate’s specifically designed harvesters are one of the most important innovations and key to the company’s ability to compete on the international olive oil market. During harvest, the olives are picked around the clock, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Traditionally, fruit used to be picked by hand, but to get this volume you’d need 5000 people and the cost would be around $1 per kilogram.

The efficiency of Cobram Estate’s ‘Colossus’ harvesters, sees the fruit picked at around 10 cents per kilo.

“It’s unique to us and allows us to be very competitive,” says Rob. “A lot of Australian industries have not been able to compete with low labour cost countries. But by spending millions refining these machines, we’re able to produce a quality product at a competitive price.”

At the moment, the harvesters get about 90% of fruit from each tree. Cobram Estate’s 16-man research and tech team is working on pushing that efficiency toward 100%. Recent upgrades have seen the harvesters better protect each tree and reduce negative impacts on the soil.

And while many seasonal industries hire backpackers, Cobram Estate has a unique employment scheme. During harvest, grey nomads work the harvesters; trusted employees who return each season.

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Fresh is Best

The fresher the olive, the better the olive oil is. So Cobram Estate has developed a system where the harvesting machines work in tandem with tractors and delivery trucks so there’s an absolute maximum of just four hours from the time an olive is picked until it is delivered to the processing plant, ensuring quality is locked in.

At the plant, the olives are washed, crushed and blended to make olive oil within two hours. This means it is just six hours from tree to olive oil, which is why Cobram Estate is constantly winning awards around the globe for its freshness and quality.

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Getting Sorted

Quality is also the big winner from one of the more recent innovations adopted by Cobram Estate, a fruit sorter. Freshly picked olives are transported on a conveyor belt through this small but incredibly efficient machine.

Working at a rate of 20 tonnes of fruit per hour, the olives are scanned for size, colour, temperature and skin appearance. Any diseased, damaged or old olives are removed. Cobram trialled a fruit sorter during their 2017 harvest. The results were startling.

“The fruit sorters removed about 20 kilograms of bad fruit out of 20 tonnes,” details Rob. “The amount of rotten olives was reduced from .03 to .01, which doesn’t sound like much, but the resultant quality of the extra virgin olive oil increased by almost 20%, so it had a massive impact.”

The Common Good

While innovation has been the cornerstone of Cobram Estate’s success, the fact that they share the information they gather says a lot about the company and the people that run it.

“Olive oil has been produced for centuries, but we’ve worked hard to modernise the process,” says Rob. 

“As part of that journey we’ve published 18 peer reviewed research papers to solve issues we’ve faced, which is quite rare for a private institution. But it is about supporting the olive oil industry and the growers’ needs too. That’s why we share our information.

“If it results in better quality fruit and better quality olive oil, there are no losers. If someone else makes high quality olive oil, that’s great. They’ll spread the word.”

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