“In the early nineties we started towing our hang gliders behind cars. The flatlands north of the Dividing Range are better for thermal flying and more reliable for the weather. That’s what brought us out to Boort, where there are really big paddocks.” Marlies says.
Originally from Switzerland, Marlies and Peter moved to Melbourne in 1988 and spent the good part of a decade working as textile and electrical engineers before they came up with the idea to leave the coffee and arts culture behind and start an olive farm in Boort. They had learnt of the tree’s tolerance to dry conditions and, with a desire to bring up their family in the country and be part of a friendly, tight-knit community, an olive grove in Boort made a lot of sense. “The amount of land and water we had available here was sufficient to make a real business out of it,” Peter says.
Ten years on and Salute Oliva is a successful, organic olive business within a thriving community locale. Their two happy teenagers are part of the local scout group that does activities around the Loddon River, Serpentine Creek or on any of the three local lakes. Their kids were too young to remember seeing the Loddon with water. “What the older generations know about this area and their experience with water, the younger generations haven’t seen,” Peter says sadly. But Marlies and Peter have fond memories of the river when it was flowing: picnics on the banks with friends in the summer and camp fires and cooking damper in the winter.
The predecessors of the Eicher’s property used 100 per cent of their water allocation to flood-irrigate pasture to graze stock. These days, the Eichers are restoring some balance with a hardy crop and sensitive water practice. “With olives, we use nowhere near our water entitlement,” says Marlies. “We use drip irrigation and only water once a week at night to keep evaporation down. Our return has multiplied ten-fold compared to what people were doing here before.”
But that’s only part of their secret to success. “Contact with end-users is the beauty of our business as we produce, pack and sell the products. There is no middle man,” Peter says proudly.
“We’ve found that younger generations want to know the story behind the product. When they realise we do it all ourselves, in the organic way and with little impact, they view this very positively and are willing to pay extra for it.”
Planning for the future is difficult given the current level of water scarcity, although the Eichers see dozens of potential tourism opportunities for Boort. “This area could cater very well for outdoor activities like cycling around the lakes and river systems. It’s great for bird watching and for people who like outdoor painting or photography.”
Salute Oliva is part of the Loddon Discovery Tour where bus loads of tourists visit the Eicher’s farm to buy olives, olive oil, beautiful handmade soaps, and tasty organic jams and chutneys, fresh from their small fruit orchard. “Through our products, city people see farmers caring for the land and people in the country see city people appreciating more sensitive farming practice.”
Story and photos by Verity McLucas, September 2009.