Agriculture is a vital industry for keeping Australians fed and clothed, as well as contributing to more than one-tenth of exports.1 However, the sector also accounts for almost 15 per cent of the nation’s greenhouse emissions2 and 55 per cent of land use3. Sustainable production is swiftly becoming an expectation among stakeholders, recognising the key role agriculture plays in environmental stewardship.
Leandro Ravetti is joint-CEO and Executive Director of Cobram Estate, a leading producer of extra virgin olive oil in Australia. At Commonwealth Bank’s recent sustainability conference, ‘Financing Australia’s Transition’, Ravetti spoke with Adrian Parker, General Manager Specialised Agribusiness Solutions at CommBank, about how the company has embedded sustainability principles into every aspect of the business.
“We don’t view sustainability as a burden or something removed from the everyday. We believe that a sustainable pathway leads not just to better environmental outcomes but to a more successful business,” he explained.
Creating sustainable land management
From the start of Cobram Estate’s sustainability journey, it had the advantage of working with a naturally eco-friendly crop. “We are fortunate that olive oil is a particularly sustainable product,” said Mr Ravetti. “It ticks all the boxes: it’s produced in a very natural way and is the only mainstream edible oil that actually acts as a carbon sink.”
The International Olive Council estimates that producing one litre of extra virgin oil captures an average of 10kg of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.4 What’s more, olive plants are efficient users of water, consuming far less per hectare than alternatives such as citrus.
Cobram Estate built on this natural efficiency by investing in precision irrigation systems which include detailed soil mapping, state-of-the-art irrigation forecasts and continued monitoring. The team has recently incorporated the use of drones and satellite imagery to identify leaks and detect when trees are in distress.
“We’ve placed a strong emphasis on good horticultural practices that help us make the most of water resources,” Mr Ravetti said. “We opted for sophisticated drip irrigation systems that use virtually no water. We also phased out harsh chemicals and set up sustainable pest and disease management.”
In addition, Cobram Estate has implemented long-term land management practices – planting native grasses between rows of crops to assist in stabilising soils against erosion. It also works with the National Heritage Trust to minimise biodiversity loss by preserving the wetland as a natural habitat for wildlife.
“We’ve been very careful in maintaining native vegetation, and our low use of chemicals allows native fauna to thrive. We’re now getting into carbon farming programs to boost our carbon credits,” said Mr Ravetti.
As a result of Cobram Estate’s sustainable water and land management practices, its 6,500 hectares of olive crops roughly offset the carbon footprint of 100,000 people every year – or the equivalent of a medium-size city in Australia.
Turning waste into profit
Zero waste ambitions form a critical pillar in Cobram Estate’s sustainability strategy and the team has found innovative ways to turn waste into new products.
They expanded into the Wellgrove health and wellness brand - the leaves left over from pruning and the pulp of the fruit both contain natural antioxidants which can be converted into natural preservatives, nutraceuticals and cosmetics. The olive pit is also turned into fuel.
“The pit represents 20 per cent of the fruit,” Mr Ravetti explained. “It actually burns with almost the same calorific power as brown coal and has a low level of ashes. This meant we could replace all our thermal energy needs with pit boilers, completely offsetting the use of fossil fuel and saving us about half-a-million dollars a year on gas bills.”
The net zero path to business success
Initially, the company’s focus was on helping Australians understand the health benefits of olive oil. But Cobram Estate recognises that the next frontier in consumer education is demonstrating sustainability, both as a product and as a brand. Mr Ravetti believes this will open up even greater market opportunities in Australia and overseas.
“Demand for extra virgin olive oil is growing and production remains quite limited. In markets like Japan, Canada and the US, sustainability is a non-negotiable for consumers. To capture that market, we need to be able to show our credentials – proving we deliver consistent quality and do it in a sustainable way.”
The Agricultural Sustainability Expert
Leandro Ravetti, Joint-Chief Executive Officer (Technical and Production) and Executive Director
Cobram Estate Olives Limited
Leandro Ravetti graduated as an Agricultural Engineer in Argentina and worked for the National Institute of Agricultural Technology in olive production research from 1995 until he moved to Australia in 2001 to join Cobram Estate Olives. Leandro has studied and worked as an invited researcher at the Olive Growing Research Institute of Perugia, Italy and at different Governmental Olive Institutes in Andalusia, Spain where he completed a postgraduate degree on olive growing and olive oil processing.
Leandro was appointed Executive Director of Cobram Estate Olives in 2005. As part of his role, Leandro has overseen all technical aspects of production, developing the Oliv.iQ® growing system. Leandro was an alternate director of the Australian Olive Association between 2009 and 2012 and was the drafting leader for the new Australian Standard for Olive Oil (AS 5264-2011). Leandro has also received a meritorious lifetime award from the Australian Olive Association for his outstanding contribution to the Australian olive industry and he was also the recipient of an award in the Master Milling/Chemical Engineering Category in the inaugural “Health & Food, Extra Virgin Olive Oil Awards” announced in Spain in 2017.
Leandro was appointed Joint-CEO (Technical and Production) of Cobram Estate Olives on 20 April 2021 and formerly held the role of Technical Director.