By applying lessons from their professional careers to food production, a married couple of engineers built a unique olive oil business from scratch.
When Tanuja Sanders and her husband Keith relocated to rural Western Australia in the late 1990s, making olive oil was not part of the plan.
The pair had been sub-contracted by Transfield to work on the expansion of the Worsley Alumina bauxite mine and decided to put down roots in the area.
They purchased a picturesque 40 ha property near Bunbury and set about building a house.
At the house-warming party, a neighbour suggested to Sanders that she plant some olive trees on a 12 ha parcel of empty land at the front of the property.
“I ended up buying 2500 trees,” she said, laughing. “I thought it could be a fun hobby.”
That hobby would eventually become the Sathya Olive Company, a thriving enterprise that now cultivates about 30 t of olives per year.
Overseen by Tanuja Sanders, whose background is in project-managing power plants, the company produces extra virgin olive oil that has won awards from Perth to the US.
Some of the couple’s success can be attributed to the location of their property, atop sandy soil in a sun-drenched corner of WA.
“We’re blessed with beautiful weather and land that is very conducive to growing olives,” Sanders said.
Because sandy soil drains more freely than clay-based earth, the couple’s trees are less susceptible to common diseases caused by water logging.
But sandy soil poses challenges, too.
“Because the soil drains so easily, the trees require frequent watering,” Sanders said. “And all that water leaches essential minerals from the soil.”
She realised that the long-term success of her olive grove would depend on how effectively it was irrigated and fertilised.
First, she installed bore pumps that could pump large volumes of water at speed. Then she turned her mind to fertilisation.
Sanders knew that small-scale fertigation — injecting fertilisers into an irrigation system — was established agricultural practice.
But she needed to replicate that technique on a larger scale.
“It was difficult to dose precisely because bore pumps are very powerful and the flow rate varies,” she said. “We couldn’t just pump X amount of fertiliser into the water.”
However, Sanders was familiar with the chemical-dosing pumps used in modern power plants.
“Those pumps are designed to measure the flow rate of the water in real time and to pump the exact amount of chemicals required to achieve consistent concentrations,” she said.
She purchased several dosing pumps, and with help from her husband Keith Sanders — a commissioning engineer — configured them to interact with the bore pumps.
The fertigation problem was solved.
Sathya Olive Company grew steadily, and by 2019 it was producing 5000 L of oil per year. Although Sanders continued to project-manage for energy and resources companies in WA, she spent much of her time developing the business.
Encouraged by their early success, the couple decided to ramp up production by adding 6000 new trees in a super high-density configuration with a plan of replacing the existing plantation progressively over five years.
But another problem loomed.
“Because we were on a farm that only had single-phase power supply, we were restricted to using pumps that can run on single-phase power,” Sanders said. “To grow, we needed even bigger pumps.”
They approached Western Power to see if the property’s power supply could be upgraded to three phase and were shocked when they received a $500,000 quote.
So they began to brainstorm alternatives with their electrical engineering colleagues.
“We came up with a method by which we applied variable speed drives to convert the single-phase power supply to three phase,” Sanders said. “That enabled us to run a three-phase motor from a single-phase input.”
As a result, Sanders has been able to scale up production without compromising her precise fertigation process.
“I’ve learned as a project manager that to create a sustainable operational model, you have to give before you get,” she said.
“So we give a lot of love and attention to the trees.”
The production of the oil is undertaken just as carefully: the olives are stored in shallow bins to prevent bruising, then cold pressed within six hours of being picked.
Among the awards won by Sathya’s olive oil are a gold medal in the 2019 Los Angeles International Extra Virgin Olive Oil competition and a trophy at the 2019 Australian International Olive Awards.
Sathya’s founders now have their sights set on export markets.
To compete with the big players, the business will need to transition from manual bottling to automation.
“The challenge now is to come up with a bottling methodology that prevents cross contamination,” Sanders said.
“Automated bottling is nothing new, but there is no bottling system that is designed to be used for multiple varieties of infused oils without wasting too much oil in flushing lines.”
One option is simply to purchase a bottling machine for each variety of oil the company produces.
“But we can’t justify that cost right now,” Sanders said.
Instead, she hopes engineering ingenuity will once again help the Sathya Olive Company gain a competitive advantage.
“If anyone out there in the engineering community can design a method that works, we would love to hear from them,” she said.