The air is hot and dry up on Regans Ridge. Although views over the scarp stretch almost to the sea, the breeze is warm after drifting 40 km inland from Lancelin. It is here that Catherine Lee, owner of Regans Ridge, planted her first olive trees over 20 years ago – choosing the site on the banks of the Moore River for it’s free-draining, calcium-rich soil and abundant water.
Catherine attributes her love of growing olives to her grandfather, whose olive trees are still going strong in the Yanchep backyard where she spent her childhood holidays.
“My grandma and mum pickled olives – and onions – which we used to devour quickly with fish and chips on Friday nights,” she recalls. “We always had olives on the table!”
It wasn’t until after a career in nursing and teaching that Catherine became an olive grower herself. She bought the 530 acre former sheep farm at Regans Ridge in 1997 and planted the first trees in 1999, with a commitment to being organic from the outset.
“The choice to be organic was always a priority. As a nurse I saw how food allergies affected children at the hospital I was working at. Also being a mum of three girls I wanted the best for them and the generations to come. Access to good food, clean water and fresh air are essentials for everyone and, having travelled quite a lot, these things are to be appreciated.”
The grove was planted from scratch, with 10 different varieties of both oil and table olive trees established over the first 5 years. Catherine’s persistence paid off, and today 18,000 trees are flourishing in the 76-acre grove.
“It just astounds me how tough olive trees are!” she says. Catherine says the hardiness of the trees also makes meeting organic standards pretty easy.
“We’ve never had much of a problem with pests. Early on we had some issues with black scale, but that was fairly easily cleared up with a paraffin-based oil,” she explains. The trees, which are watered regularly also receive fish emulsion and a seaweed-based fertiliser via the irrigation system.
The thriving trees now produce between 20,000 and 25,00 litres of certified organic, extra virgin olive oil each year, as well as 130 barrels of table olives. The oil is now pressed on site after a huge investment into a processing facility built in 2012 — one which was all but destroyed two years later.
“In 2014 we had a mini-tornado hit the farm, which did huge amounts of damage to the new press — as well as uprooting quite a few trees,” explains Catherine.
The press is now fully rebuilt and all processing takes place on the property. Catherine enlists the help of backpackers throughout the long harvest from March to July. Pruning is done by contractors and once a week a group of local ladies gather together in the shed to help with the pickling and packing of the table olives, bottling olive oil and making dukkah.
A unique product from Regan’s Ridge is the mixed olives, marinated with organic herbs. A variety of sizes and colours all together makes a pretty jumble in the jar – a welcome change from our often-standardised food. Catherine sells the popular table olives as well as her oil in several flavours and sizes at local markets, select shops and restaurants. Catherine’s tree-change is now a full-time enterprise, and well worth the hard work.
“It was hard establishing the grove on my own with three young girls. I had help starting off with the first 12 acres, contracting workers, but the remaining 64 acres I planted with the help of local workers. It’s amazing the energy you seem to find when you are passionate about something!”
Catherine’s three daughters are busy establishing their own careers, but also help to grow the family business when they can. “They are all interested in different aspects of the farm, but they are unanimous on continuing the organics,” she says.
“The whole property has been certified organic for over 15 years. Supplying organic produce is the end result of many years of taking care of the finite resources we have in water, air and the soil. This has utmost importance for the future viability of these resources for generations to come and for the production of good healthy food. We are playing a small part in achieving this at Regans Ridge.”
Regans Ridge Olive oil is also a member of Slow Food International which promotes the production of food which is good quality, cleanly produced and fairly priced.
Locally you can buy Reagans Ridge products at Northern Valleys Locavore Store www.nvls.com.au.