Few know that Port Phillip’s public spaces are home to more than 400 olive trees, with about a quarter being fruiting varieties. Olive trees are the oldest cultivated trees in existence and this community-minded band of volunteers are working together to keep them flourishing on nature strips and in parks for years to come. The trees can be found across the City, especially in Port Melbourne, Albert Park and Middle Park.
Members of local European communities used to tend the trees and brine the olives or transform them into versatile olive oil. With many of these members moving on, the delicious fruit has largely gone to waste over recent years, creating a squishy mess when dropping onto footpaths.
This changed when our Council asked graduates of its Environmental Leaders Course in April if they wanted to help solve the problem.
Pickers co-founders Isabel Gardner and Agnieszka Majer had coincidentally been talking about a project in the northern suburbs which encourages olive lovers to collect the fruit in private and public spaces for pressing. They jumped at the opportunity to spearhead a similar operation in their own “backyard” and quickly found about eight volunteers to harvest olives over a two-day trial.
The fruits of their labour were 23 litres of oil pressed from 200 kilograms of olives that would have otherwise gone to waste.
“It really snowballed from when Council asked us to get involved. We were in the right place at the right time,” Isabel said. “The trial has given us confidence that this idea is scalable and doable.”
The plan is to recruit more volunteer pickers to lend a hand when the next crop is ready to be picked in April or early May next year.
“It’s also about re-creating a sense of ownership, with people pruning and fertilising trees they have ‘adopted’,” Isabel said.
“We would like to reframe the thinking so people feel they are living in urban food production zones rather than just a high density city”
Isabel believes the sustainability project also helps people, as well as trees, to thrive.
“The harvesting really brought a sense of community connection while reconnecting to the land around us. When I was picking from a grove in a park, families at a nearby playground jumped in and helped.”
Agnieszka agrees the successful trial showed the community’s appetite for a sustainable solution to the olives going to waste.
“People were cheering us on when we were picking and telling us where we could find other olive trees. This is a great way for us to find people still tending trees who may want to join us for the next harvest.”
“This project is not just practical and yummy, it also brings people together, it’s reconnecting us to previous generations.”
Agnieszka and Isabel recently hosted a tasting for Councillors, including Mayor Marcus Pearl, when sharing the Pickers’ success story.
Isabel said they valued the support from Council, which included paying for the oil pressing. They hope to sell the next batch so they can become a self-funded not-for-profit group.
Cr Pearl said Council is keen to continue to support the Pickers. “Isabel and Agnieszka exemplify the leadership and vision we promoted in our Environmental Leaders Course and we look forward to the Port Phillip Pickers continuing to contribute to sustainability across our City.”