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Women in the olive industry: Louise Rabie

Women in the SA Olive industry: Louise Rabie – love and olive oil

Olive oil runs thick in Louise Rabie’s blood. She’s not only a familiar personality in the local olive industry, but also a member of the SA Olive board of directors and a world-class olive oil taster. We were unable to have a face-to-face sit down with Louise, but after years of working side-by-side with her, it felt as if we were with her on the farm in Leeu Gamka when we interviewed her. Louise’s olive oil journey reads like a love story, and like so many people in the industry, she fell into it and you’ll have to extract her with a bulldozer.

1. What brought you to where you are today – a woman in agriculture?

I studied BSc Consumer Science at Stellenbosch University and married my farmer the Saturday after I graduated.  My husband, Andries, farmed vineyards, wheat and potatoes on the family farm in the Nuy Valley and I worked as District Manager at an industrial catering company. Andries diversified into olives in 1999 and then, short on the heels of our 3rd child, followed another baby: Willow Creek Olive Oil – named after the farm. This new business entailed more than farming and demanded a lot of attention, so Andries asked me to quit my job and help him. Our “Mom and Pop shop” produced an inaugural 15 thousand liters of EVOO in 2002. We learned about olives and olive oil from local and international experts. A partner, as well as our ever-growing passion and knowledge further strengthened our business. It grew year-on-year with new opportunities and challenges. Eventually our 4th child, Willow Creek, grew up and left home. But it seems olive oil runs in our blood and we now have a “laatlam”: Lions Creek. Still crawling, but showing a lot of promise.

2. Are there unique challenges as a woman in the olive growing and olive oil making business?

I believe the challenges are the same regardless of whether you’re a man or a woman. Besides the infrastructure and funds, you need the right information, reliable suppliers, and a motivated team. If you have that sorted, the next challenge is to sell your locally produced EVOO at a reasonable profit.

3. What are the hard skills you need to make it work?

If you have the passion and determination, the hard skills won’t be difficult to master. Knowledge of various cultivars, planting methods, farming, harvesting, and very importantly the extraction, storing and blending of the olive oil are key hard skills. Depending on whether you sell your product in bulk or branded, you may need expertise in marketing and the retail game.

4. What are the soft skills you need to make it work?

As with most businesses, you need to select the right people to make up your team, to utilise their various skills to the full, keep them cohesive and motivated even through challenging circumstances (like a drought and the outbreak of COVID-19) in order to realise your shared goal.

5. What has been a highlight in your career in the olive industry thus far?

There have been a few over the last 2 decades. It was very rewarding to be ranked as South Africa’s most awarded olive oil producer, and the #26 olive oil producer in the world by the independent organisation EVOO World Ranking ( It was fulfilling to reach the goals we set for the Willow Creek brand, and wonderful to represent South Africa as part of two tasting teams at the World Extra Virgin Olive Oil Tasting Team Championship in Spain – and we claimed 5th place!

6. Why do you love what you do?

An olive grove soothes my soul and good quality extra virgin olive oil pleases my palate! Olive trees can endure drought, heat, cold and aging and still continue to produce fruit from which the healthiest and most flavourful oil is extracted. Tasting various cultivars and creating different blends are very satisfying. Being a member of the SA Olive Tasting Panel since before it became official and judging at many local competitions are work perks – except when there’s a defective olive oil in the line up!

7. What does the future hold – for you, your business, and the country?

I trust that good quality healthy food will continue to be valued as essential by many consumers. I hope that the drought cycle is passing and that South Africa will be increasingly efficient and successful in the agricultural sector.

8. Do you have a funny story about your time in the olive business?

Strippaggio! On my first olive oil inspired trip to Italy in 2002, we visited Olio Carli in Imperia. While being guided through the factory and laboratory by Mr. Carli, dressed to a T in a designer suit, silk tie and Italian leather shoes, I was shocked to hear a very loud slurping noise from this impeccably dressed man when he tasted olive oil in the lab. I thought he was going to apologise for his poor manners, but he nonchalantly continued to describe the characteristics of the olive oil he had just tasted. Turns out it wasn’t bad manners, but strippaggio: a technique used to strip the olive oil on the pallet so that you can experience its flavour to the full.

9. What does your support structure look like?

Our manager and personnel at Lions Creek are reliable team players who each contribute their valuable share in order for us to produce the best possible quality EVOO.

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Researcher provides tips on how olive farmers can ward off trunk diseases

April 2020

New research by a recent PhD graduate of Stellenbosch University has shed light on what olive tree farmers can do to curb olive trunk diseases in their orchards. Among these tips are to prune trees when humidity levels are low, to apply wound protection within the first week after pruning, and to remove shredded branches from orchards.

The research was done by Dr Meagan van Dyk of the Strand, as part of her PhD in Plant Pathology. Her research was funded by ARC Infruitec-Nietvoorbij, the National Research Foundation and the Department Trade and Industry’s THRIP programme in collaboration with SA Olive Industry Association. She was based at the Agricultural Research Council’s Infruitec-Nietvoorbij campus in Stellenbosch while completing her four-year research project under the supervision of Prof Francois Halleen (ARC Infruitec-Nietvoorbij), Prof Lizel Mostert (SU Department of Plant Pathology) and Dr Chris Spies (ARC Plant Health and Protection).

“The olive industry in South Africa produces an excellent quality olive oil. However, the Olive Sector Development Plan of the Department of Trade and Industry identified low production and the lack of local research as weaknesses of the olive industry in South Africa. The effective management of pests and diseases, including olive trunk diseases, forms an integral part in improving the lifespan and yield of olive trees, and increasing olive production in especially the Western Cape,” says Prof Halleen of the ARC, who also hold the position as extraordinary associate professor in the SU
Department of Plant Pathology.

Prof Halleen says that trunk diseases typically take a long time to develop. It starts with the dieback of shoots, and then spreads to the rest of the tree. He reckons that good harvests can still be taken off tries that farmers have managed well.

Dr Van Dyk identified at least 33 fungal species as potential olive trunk pathogens. These were found in established orchards, and worryingly, some also in nursery stock. A new widespread Pseudophaeomoniella species was fingered as one of the most important olive trunk pathogens. It was found in orchards and in lower incidences in nurseries.

Pruning is an essential part of maintaining olive production, and it is also a way of controlling diseases. It helps to increase light distribution and aeration in an orchard, which in turn helps to ensure that fungicide spray is applied more uniformly all over trees.

It is, however, also a period on an olive farm during which trees are highly susceptible to infection. Pruning wounds were most susceptible within the first week after pruning. However, in some cases, Pseudophaeomoniella spesies infections occurred up to 42 days after pruning.

No clear-cut season (either winter or spring) stood out during which it is better to do pruning in an effort to prevent trunk disease. Higher humidity levels did, however, play a role.

In terms of pruning processes, Dr van Dyk therefore advises that:

  • Pruning be done while humidity levels are low, irrespective of the season.
  • Wound protection be applied to pruning wounds within the first week after pruning.
  • Farmers should not only remove and burn larger diseased branches from infected trees and orchards. Smaller branches, which are generally shredded, should also be removed because these can still sustain microbial communities and cause new infections.

In terms of the use of pruning wound protectants, Dr van Dyk found that:

  • Under high inoculum pressure, Tree Seal and Coprox Super/Bendazid consistently provided the best protection against Pseudophaeomoniella sp. infections.
  • Tree Seal provided protection of the pruning wounds during low inoculum pressure.
  • Under low inoculum pressure MT1, a Trichoderma-based product currently being developed by the SU Department of Plant Pathology, was also able to reduce the incidence of Pseudophaeomoniella sp. within the first week after pruning.

Dr van Dyk’s studies with MT1 was done on “Frantoio” olive trees.

“The results suggest that MT1 can effectively be used to manage olive trunk diseases of the pruning wounds of ‘Frantoio’ olive trees in well-maintained orchards that are expected to have a low inoculum pressure,” she adds.

She’d like to see further evaluations of pruning wound protectants on other olive cultivars in different climatic and geographic areas too, and against other potential olive trunk pathogens, such as Botryosphaeriaceae and Phaeoacremonium spp.

Two olive tree nurseries were sampled during the course of her research. Some young potted olive trees were found to be planted in soil infected with Phaeoacremonium parasiticum and Pleurostoma richardsiae.

“The fact that some nursery material was found to be infected with notable trunk pathogens highlights the need for more stringent disease management practices to ensure that pathogen-free material is delivered to producers,” says Dr van Dyk. “Further investigations of these pathogens occurring in the soil and 1–2-year old trees should be performed to establish whether this was an isolated event or if it is a chronic occurrence,” she notes.

Most of the olive trunk pathogens that Dr van Dyk found in nursery stock were detected from the parts of the plant that was buried in potting soil.

“This suggests that the majority of the infections developed from the basal end of the cuttings that was in direct contact with perlite, soil and water,” she adds. “I’d like to do further investigations to determine which of these components are contaminated, and how one would be able to prevent or decontaminate it.”

“This study led to new knowledge with regards to olive trunk diseases, their pathogenicity, detection, epidemiology and control which can be used for the development of improved management strategies of olive trunk diseases in South Africa,” says Prof Lizel Mostert of the SU Department of Plant Pathology.

More information about Dr Van Dyk

Dr Meagan van Dyk grew up in Tierfontein, a farming community near Malmesbury. She matriculated from La Rochelle Girls’ High School, Paarl. Dr van Dyk completed a BSc in Crop Protection and Breeding from Stellenbosch University, before starting her postgraduate studies in Plant Pathology.

Dr Meagan van Dyk had the opportunity to present some of her findings at the 2018 International Congress of Plant Pathology in Boston in the US. Photo: Francois Halleen

A brown V-shaped canker observed in an infected olive branch, typically caused by one of the trunk disease pathogens that Dr van Dyk investigated. Photo: Francois Halleen

Dr Meagan van Dyk (middle) during one of the nursery surveys conducted, along with some of her study leaders. They were Dr Chris Spies of the Agricultural Research Council and Prof Lizel Mostert of the Department of Plant Pathology at Stellenbosch University. Photo Francois Halleen

For media enquiries only:
Prof Francois Halleen
ARC Infruitec-Nietvoorbij and extraordinary associate professor in the Department of Plant Pathology, Stellenbosch University
083 415 9152
Article written by Engela Duvenage, for the Faculty of AgriSciences, Stellenbosch University

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Women in the olive industry: Nicole Koen

Women in the olive industry: Nicole Koen (right) – it’s all about being part of a strong team.

Nicole Koen, Production Manager at Darling Olives, grew up on a farm in the Stellenbosch region and has always had a strong attraction to the field of agriculture. In our interview with Nicole it became very apparent that she is a team-player with a deep love and appreciation for what she does and the people she works with. Coming into the industry as a rookie after her studying BSC Consumer Science, Nicole now has six years under the belt at an award-winning olive press and says ‘I have developed a great passion for the olive and olive oil industry.’

We asked Nicole to tell us more about her journey in the industry.

1. What brought you to where you are today – a woman in agriculture?

I grew up in Stellenbosch on a farm and always loved the farm life, food industry and agriculture. In 2014, I completed my honours degree at the University of Potchefstroom in BSC Consumer Science. During my last month as a student, I applied for the Production Manager position in Darling. This position combined all the things I love. I’ve been part of this awesome team for the past six years, and what a privilege it’s been! I didn’t know a lot about olives or olive products when I started here. The owner of the business took me under her wing and taught me everything about olives and olive products.

2. Are there unique challenges as a woman in the olive growing and olive oil making business?

I think in any agricultural direction it is a challenge to stand out as a woman, especially when it comes to the mechanical or physical aspects of the job. I have a strong team that works with me, which mainly consists of women and two men. The men are our right hand when it comes to physical strength!

I don’t always know the correct terms of the machines or fittings, especially not at the press – but I just have to know it fits and how it works – of course it annoys some men, which I find hilarious. Women are capable of doing great things and make the best multi-taskers.

3. What are the hard skills you need to make it work?

My degree contributes to my hard skills, including food safety, food quality, as well as production planning, solving problems and time management.

4. What are the soft skills you need to make it work?

I believe the most important soft skills are people skills and a positive and joyful environment is the most efficient environment. Communication, motivation and willingness to learn are the keys to success. And of course there’s nothing like music or a great laugh to get things going.

5. What has been a highlight in your career in the olive industry thus far?

Our first gold medal at the 2019 SA Olive awards.

6. Why do you love what you do?

There are always new challenges and challenges are my driving force!

7. What does the future hold – for you, your business, and the country?

I want to continue learning about the olive and olive oil industry. We set goals for improving production and creating more efficient systems every year. These goals are our guidelines for the future.

8. Do you have a funny story about your time in the olive business?

Our team finds something to laugh about on a daily basis. It is always funny to introduce someone new to an unfermented olive.

9. What does your support structure look like?

Roleen Basson, the owner of  the business, is incredibly supportive of everything I do – from new ideas to personal challenges. Our team stands together and we support each other in everything. My husband is always willing to help and is my most staunch supporter.

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Women in the olive industry: Reni Hildenbrand

Women in the olive industry: Reni Hildenbrand – knowledge gained through passion.

We start our series of ‘Women in the olive industry’ with someone who has made her mark in the South African olive industry with her passion for knowledge and sharing it, as well as her strong sense of Ubuntu.

We visited Reni Hildenbrand’s olive and wine farm in the Wellington district of the Western Cape and came back with smiles and a story.

SA Olive: Can you give us a few sentences about your history – before becoming an olive and wine farmer?

Reni: Growing up in Germany, I preferred the countryside to big cities. I wanted to rescue animals and make wine. My mother did not like this idea, so I applied my creativity by studying architecture. I worked in that field until I bought the farm in Wellington.

SA Olive: What brought you to where you are today – a woman in agriculture?

Reni: My husband was transferred from Germany to Johannesburg by his company in 1984. Following his passing in a car accident in 1988, I decided to follow my dream of making wine. I bought my farm in Wellington in 1991 and after learning that the first commercially planted olive tree was planted there in 1893, I decided to continue the tradition of olive farming.

SA Olive: Are there unique challenges as a woman in the olive growing and olive oil making business?

Reni: There are many. Agriculture is still a very male dominated sector and as a woman you cannot be a ‘sissy’ – you have to be strong to make your mark. Being a ‘Mister’ still opens doors with less effort.

SA Olive: What are the hard skills you need to make it work?

Reni: Well, firstly you need money and you have to hold onto it. Secondly, you must be willing to work hard and long hours. You also need to be able to plan and organise. Most important is NOT TO GIVE up in the face of many hurdles.

SA Olive: What are the soft skills you need to make it work?

Reni: Be feminine, love what you do, share with your friends, and be confident in what you’re doing.

SA Olive: What has been a highlight in this career so far?

Reni: There have been so many highlights! To mention just a few:

  1. Having produced a good, well-balanced Extra Virgin Olive Oil.
  2. Studying in Italy to be a qualified olive oil taster, as well as a panel leader at tasting panels.
  3. Being an international olive oil taster.

SA Olive: Why do you love what you do?

Reni: Being a taster on international EVOO tasting panels means I travel a lot, meet wonderful people and learn something new all the time. I just visited Peru as a panel member for the Southern Hemisphere Sol d’Oro competition and once again I was blown away by how much knowledge there is out there if we actively participate in events like this and are willing to keep on learning about our craft.

SA Olive: What does the future hold for you and your business in the South African context?

Reni: I like to think of myself as being a realist – not a pessimist – but we are facing various challenges. Things like load shedding have a huge effect on farming and the production of olive oil and wine.

SA Olive: Do you have a funny story about your time in the olive business?

Reni: When I started in 1991 the farmers around me gave me a maximum of three months before I ran for the hills. I was a foreigner with no farming background who loved dressing up. Today they all love me and call me Schatzie.

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SA Olive Mentorship Programme – Jonathan Prins

Jonathan Prins.

After 24 years on the Rio Largo farm, Jonathan Prins does not only see it as his workplace and home, but also as his heart place. He first started dabbling in the olive oil making process in 2007 with the then Portuguese owner. But things really changed for him when Nick and Brenda Wilkinson bought Rio Largo. Not only did they upgrade and computerise the machinery, Nick also took Jonathan under his wing and taught him how to operate the machinery, as well as the finer points of olive oil making. Jonathan says ‘Nick taught me the difference between good and bad olive oils’.

Jonathan describes the SA Olive Mentorship programme as a life-changing event for him. He says ‘before I did the Free to Grow part of the programme, I lived recklessly. The programme had a deep influence on everything in my life, including my family and work lives. It taught me to be responsible and that has made me a trustworthy employee, father and husband.’

Jonathan’s dream is to make the best olive oils for the local and export markets.

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Following the announcement of the 2019 #SAOliveAwards & #AbsaTop10 Olive Oils Awards in South Africa, we are presenting a series of interviews with each Gold winning producer.

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SA Olive Gold Winner: Zoetigheyd

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