By Terry Thompson-Anderson
Photography by Marla Camp
The olive tree has been firmly rooted in Mediterranean culture since the early days of civilization. The Greeks and Phoenicians began exporting olive oil westward to Italy, France and Spain as early as 400 BC, and by 100 AD, the Romans had become major producers. By the year 1300, olive oil was a dietary staple in the entire Mediterranean region.
Olive trees were introduced to the New World from Spain in the early 1500s, first arriving in Cuba. The early colonists included priests who established missions and planted olive trees and grapes. Those olive trees planted in California around 1769 became known as mission olive trees. And although the missions were eventually abandoned, early California ranchers began to care for the old trees and took cuttings to produce even more trees. The gold rush brought many transplanted Italians to California yearning for the olive oil and table olives of their homeland, and ranchers, seizing the opportunity to supplement income from their lands, planted other olive varietals, including ascolano and barouni, which became popular as canned olives.
The California olive industry thrived until the 1890s when, in response to the growing European population in California, the Europeans stepped up their export of olive oil to the U.S. Imported oil was less expensive, often because of the unscrupulous practice of adding a portion of cheaper, refined oil to the olive oil, and the California olive industry began to decline. The creation of refined seed oils in the early 1900s further decimated the industry. These oils were far lower in price than even imported olive oils and, as a result, the demand for olive oil dropped.
In the late 1980s, however, the health benefits of olive oil became front-page news, and many of the California vineyard owners began looking at their old olive trees with new hope. The California Olive Oil Council was formed to unify the new group of olive growers in 1992, and today California is the leading U.S. producer of olive oil.
Closer to home, the earliest recorded experimental planting of olive trees in Texas was during the 1930s in the Carrizo Springs area—also called the Winter Garden Region—by Ernest Mortensen of the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station. The trial’s results proved that olive trees would indeed bear fruit in Texas, but it would take an additional 60 years for commercial olive growing to bloom.
In the early ’90s, olive trees were planted in Central Texas by Dallasite Trigg Dealey and Baxter Adams on Adams’s property in Devine. Trees were also planted in Marble Falls by Dallas businessman Jim Henry. Adams was already well-known within agricultural circles as the originator and key player in the development of the commercial dwarf apple tree industry in Texas, overseeing more than 150,000 apple trees on his Love Creek Orchards in the Hill Country near Medina. The three friends had become interested in olive cultivation while attempting to research climate comparisons between Texas and Spain, the world’s largest producer of olive oil. Much like the early Texas winemakers and lavender growers, these olive enthusiasts noted the similarities in soil and climate between certain European olive-growing regions and many areas of Texas. What they discovered in their quest, however, was that no comprehensive comparison data existed. But like any pioneers worth their salt, the trio went forward with experimental planting anyway.
Unfortunately, those first orchards succumbed to freezes that killed all of the young trees. Adams eventually went back to his apple trees, but Henry and Dealy kept at it, moving their operations to the Rio Grande region, near Asherton, where the climate is milder. Henry partnered with Jim Marmion and planted 2,600 olive trees of several varieties at Marmion’s Moro Creek Ranch. Just to the east, ranchers Beverly and David Anderson were setting forth on their own olive quest—planting 144 Italian variety olive trees on their land south of Dilley in 1997. Four years later, the Andersons pressed their first Texas olive oil and continue to produce on a small scale for personal use.
Also in 1997, sixth-generation rancher Saundra Winokur moved back to Texas after many years away spent traveling, pursuing an education and working as a children's book illustrator. She and her husband, now deceased, purchased land in Elmendorf, about 20 miles southeast of San Antonio, with the explicit intention of planting olive trees and raising cattle. Her first 1,500 olive trees were planted in 1998, and in 2002 she planted an additional 3,500 trees of Spanish varieties arbequina and arbosana. In 2005 she added another 5,000 trees, including more arbequina and arbosana, as well as introducing some Greek koroneiki and Italian coratina.
Today, of the more than 10,000 trees at Winokur’s Sandy Oaks Olive Orchard, 31 different olive varieties thrive—including cold-hardy Tunisian varieties. Winokur’s goal is to produce a wide range of oils—from mild to bold—and points to her newly purchased commercial press from Italy as a big step forward. In addition to oils, Winokur produces brined table olives and skin care and beauty products from the bounty.
Jack and Patricia Dougherty moved to the Texas Hill Country from California when Jack retired after 20 years in the computer industry. The Doughertys purchased their Bella Vista Ranch property in Wimberley and planted 1,000 olive trees in 1998—the main varieties being mission and coratina, with barouni and pendolino planted for pollination. A killing freeze nipped Bella Vista’s first planting, but Jack had faith that once the trees became established they would withstand modest freezes with only that year’s crop being affected—similar to the local peach industry. He was right—the orchard was replanted and their first crop was harvested in 2001. Today, the Dougherty’s Alfresco olive oil is marketed under their First Texas Olive Company brand and produced using an Italian-made Oliomio Model 60 olive press that cold presses olives with a high-speed internal centrifuge.
By 2005, Jim Henry had gained enough confidence in the viability of a Texas olive industry that he planted his own 40,000 trees. Texas Olive Ranch was founded just outside Carrizo Springs by Henry and partners Karen Lee and Jerry and Penny Farrell. For his orchard planting, Henry chose the high-density method developed at the University of Cordova in Spain. After the country began running out of available land, older orchards began using high-density and super-high-density planting to optimize production. Traditional planting models—with rows spaced 18 feet apart—allow the trees to grow indefinitely while production per tree is higher than for high-density plantings. However, traditional planting allows only approximately 125–150 trees per acre, as opposed to the 790 trees per acre with super-high-density planting.
Each tree in a traditionally planted orchard will yield up to 40 pounds of olives annually, while each tree in a high-density orchard will yield 15–18 pounds. Traditionally planted orchards require hand harvesting as well—pickers use ladders to rake the olives from the trees into bags, or the trees are fitted with nets to catch the falling olives—and the trees are generally pruned to about 15 feet in height. In high-density planting, the trees are spaced 5 feet apart, with 13 feet between the rows, and are pruned to a height of about 8 feet to accommodate mechanical harvesting. Traditional spacing is the best method for small orchards, where mechanical harvesting is not economically feasible.
There are, of course, advantages and disadvantages to both planting methods—depending on the grower’s specific needs. Sandy Oaks Olive Orchard and Bella Vista Ranch have had great success using the traditional spacing models. And Texas Olive Ranch’s method has proven a good move as well. Henry notes that the 2007 olive harvest in Texas was a benchmark, with nearly 100 tons of olives harvested, and an olive oil yield of 50 gallons per ton of olives.
“It’s finally materialized that there really is something to this,” Henry says. “We have to look at the big picture that there is now an olive industry in Texas and it’s working. The hope is that people can make a living doing this.”
During March and April of this year, Henry hopes to add an orchard planted in the traditional-spacing model with varietals not well suited to high-density planting. The trees will include mission, picual, hojiblanca, coratina and sevillano—known as the “beauty queens” of the species for their goose-egg-size fruit.
One of the latest to enter the olive arena is the Central Texas Olive Ranch. In 1976, Curtis Mickan purchased 125 acres of land near Georgetown. When his grandson, Joshua Swafford, entered Texas A&M University, Mickan decided to use the land to establish a legacy for the young man. Mickan began to investigate the potential for growing olives, and he contacted Swafford to ask his opinion. Swafford thought it sounded like an exciting challenge, so Mickan put him in charge of research—a task that Swafford eagerly embraced. The investigation was thorough, and included having the soil tested by A&M to assure proper pH range and drainage capabilities. When Swafford graduated in May of 2009, the family planted 23,000 Spanish arbequina and arbosana and Greek koroneiki trees on 33 acres using the super-high-density planting model. Developing the entire 125 acres of land is on the horizon, after carefully evaluating each crop for insight into expansion.
Central Texas Olive Ranch is the northernmost orchard in Texas, so the first hurdle will be to get the trees through the first two years without a major freeze. Once the root structure is well established, the olive trees will rebound from a freeze, but the newly planted trees are still vulnerable. Although Swafford speaks with passion and optimism about the orchard and the legacy over which he has stewardship, he knows the risks they face. The record-breaking freezing spell this January—during which the entire family spent many sleepless nights in the orchard wrapping the trees and creating heat with butane burners—was a frightful reminder of those risks. However, Joshua reports that, although it was a physically and emotionally trying experience, thanks to the entire family’s hard work, they didn’t lose a single tree. He feels that because the trees were able to withstand the extreme cold, they should be strong enough to get through the next winter, given the same diligent care.
“Once we get the trees through the first two years, I’ll be able to breathe a sigh of relief,” he says. “Until those trees start producing, all of this money is coming out of my grandfather’s pocket.” Swafford plans to harvest his first crop in 2011.
Also a bit of a new-kid-on-the-block is Texas Hill Country Olive Company near Dripping Springs. Co-owned by John Gambini and father and son Rick and Mike Mensik, the ranch was founded in 2008 and uses organic methods to grow olives. The oil, marketed under the Terra Verde label, is a blend of mission, pendolino and arbequina olives. On the drawing board for 2010 is a new mill house for the press, and a combination gift shop and tasting room. The ranch even offers olive-oil enthusiasts the ability to adopt an olive tree—selecting from four different varieties. The adopted trees are cared for by the company and the person adopting the tree receives personalized bottles of olive oil pressed from the tree’s olives in the fall and spring.
The Conly Olive Farm in Asherton, with 11,000 trees, will harvest its first crop in 2010, and several other sizeable commercial orchards are in the development stage with scheduled production beginning in 2011—including the 50,000-tree Olivia Orchard in La Pryor and the Gino Venitucci orchard near Galveston with 10,000 trees.
Although many Texans may be unaware that olives are being grown here, the industry continues to coalesce and gain recognition. A beneficial early by-product of the fledgling industry was the formation of the Texas Olive Oil Council. Established in 1993 by Jim Henry, Baxter Adams and Trigg Dealey, and soon joined by Saundra Winokur, the nonprofit organization was created to gather and distribute the most current and pertinent information about growing olives and making olive oil in Texas.
Currently, the Texas Olive Oil Council is working closely with the Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA) to gain credibility for the industry and develop standards for the production and labeling of Texas olive oil while supporting the industry’s potential through spreading the word. The TDA is working to compile a database of relevant information on growing, cultivating, processing and marketing olives and olive products. The council needs the support of both the USDA and the TDA to form an infrastructure within the industry. There are thousands of varieties of olives in the world, but 90 percent of the world’s production comes from only 150 varieties. Like the grape-growing industry in Texas, the olive industry’s success hinges on finding the varietals that grow best in Texas soil and climate and best suit the taste of Texas consumers.
“We want to be a resource for the farmers—a sounding board for those seeking information about olive growing,” says Henry.
“Right now, we’re all just bootstrapping it,” adds Henry’s partner, Karen Lee.
Recently the Texas Olive Oil Council, with assistance from Texas Tech University, submitted a grant request for research to the TDA’s Specialty Crop Block Grant Program. The purpose of the research will be to answer many growers’ concerns about cultivating olives in Texas. The first research project will be conducted by Texas Tech at three Texas olive-growing facilities: Sandy Oaks Olive Orchard, Texas Olive Ranch and Central Texas Olive Ranch. The study will focus on weed control in orchards, nutrient management, watering and the effects of temperature and humidity on blooms and fruit set. The council is optimistic that eventually a state certification program, much like California’s, will be instituted in Texas to do sensory evaluations of Texas olive oils.
Texas olive growers remain united in the opinion that there is plenty of room for expansion of the industry. “Most of the work has already been done for olive growers,” says Lee. “Food writers and health experts have been extolling the virtues of olive oil for a number of years. So now the work to be done by the Texas industry is to grow quality olives and make a good product.”
“There’s a ready market for every olive harvested in Texas,” adds Henry. “We just need more!”
“We need more people involved who view olives as an industry in Texas,” says Saundra Winokur. “We must benefit each other, then we all benefit. Certainly competition is an issue, but mutual sharing is essential.”
Karen Lee and Jim Henry of Texas Olive Ranch have begun presenting an ongoing series of Olive Business Seminars at their ranch. The seminars are designed to encourage distressed local farmers to add olives as an auxiliary crop. Olive farming could prove to be not only an economic boon to areas like the Rio Grande Valley—where drug trafficking has taken over as an underground economy, wreaking havoc on families and traditional economies—but a means by which residents could reestablish their family-farm structure. And it could be accomplished with a fairly small investment of land and resources, provided a cooperative press could be established similar to the one at the Texas Olive Ranch. The seminars provide in-depth information on growing olives from the ground up—from which varietals have been successful in the area, to land preparation, planting options, watering needs, fertilizing, pruning and harvesting. Also included is information about the costs associated with planting an acre of olive trees, and the expected income that acre of harvested olives can produce. Options for a myriad of olive products other than olive oil—such as the growing market for olive-based bath and beauty products—are also discussed. And representatives from local financial institutions are on hand to assist interested farmers with financing options.
Mario Chavez, a USDA Field Representative and a representative of the Middle Rio Grande Development Council, recently attended one of the seminars to further answer farmers’ questions on the viability of growing olives as a commercial crop. “Growing olives commercially can help Texas farmers diversify their overall farming operations by adding olives to an existing crop such as citrus,” says Chavez. Lee and Henry are working with the USDA Middle Rio Grande office in Uvalde to schedule the next seminar, which will be held in March 2010. Information is available on the Texas Olive Ranch website.
As interest in the industry mounts, unexpected surprises have occurred. In March of 2008, the San Antonio chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier International, an organization celebrating women of achievement in the fields of food, wine, hospitality and agriculture, presented the Olives Olé olive festival at the Sandy Oaks Olive Orchard. According to chapter president Di-Anna Arias, the group had no idea whether the festival—part of the TDA’s GO TEXAN events—would be a success. The festival offered cooking demonstrations, seminars on the health benefits of olive oil, tastings of both olives and olive oil from around the globe and Texas wine tastings, as well as a concession area offering a tantalizing array of foods cooked with olive oil by chef/restaurateur members. Olive trees were available for purchase from Sandy Oaks, and tours of the olive orchards were offered. Arias said they would have been pleased with 200 attendees, but the organizers quit counting heads after more than 2,000 had passed through the admission area. The next Olives Olé festival is slated for March 2010.
Olive growers from around the state look to the results of the festival with great hope for the future. They are keeping a close eye on the Texas wine industry’s success at building agritourism and envision similar plans to create visitor destinations with tasting rooms and guided tours of the orchards, annual harvests and pressings of the olives. As tourism in the olive-growing regions would increase, so would the need for lodging facilities, restaurants and other recreational options that would benefit local economies. Yet since the Texas olive industry is in its infancy, and it takes about two to three years for trees to mature to the point of bearing fruit, it is impossible to place a figure on the potential economic impact of the industry on the state’s economy. The Texas Olive Oil Council is confident, however, that as the present 700 acres of olive trees expands to over 1,600 acres by 2011, the industry’s impact on the Texas economy will be substantial, given that the retail value of one acre of olives is approximately $11,000–$22,000 (based on a retail price of $10–$20 per 16.9-ounce bottle of olive oil).
The impact of the Texas oil on palates is already firmly established, though. Consumers have been astounded by its freshness and richness of flavor, as the oil reaches local markets infinitely quicker than imported olive oils, and months ahead of California oils. And many Texas chefs—especially those who have been diligent in seeking out local and Texas-produced foods to use in their restaurants—are beginning to embrace Texas olives and olive oil, as well.
Chef Parker White of Austin’s Cipollina West Austin Bistro is amazed at the depth of flavor found in Texas olive oil. “It’s a really good quality oil with herbal and golden grass notes,” he says. “I love the fact that it has a little spice in the mix, but not too much. I think it’s like a great cross between a really green grassy flavor and one that’s more of straw—with a bit of butteriness in the middle. It’s definitely fresh, not an oil that’s been sitting around in the bottle for an extended time. I’m excited about experimenting with it in our menu dishes.”
Those in the industry are banking on these kinds of reactions to continue to draw interest to, and bolster additional growth for, Texas’s newest boom.
For more information on Texas olive products:
Texas Olive Oil Council: texasoliveoilcouncil.org
Texas Olive Ranch: texasoliveranch.com
Bella Vista Ranch: bvranch.com
Sandy Oaks Olive Orchard: sandyoaks.com
Texas Hill Country Olive Company: texashillcountryoliveco.com
Olive Oil Facts
• Olive growers watch the trees carefully for an even blend of ripe, maroon-colored olives and less-ripe green fruit to balance the flavor of the oil. If a great percentage of the olives harvested are green, the oil will have a much more intense taste, often described as peppery.
• Harvested olives must be shaded quickly to avoid sunburn and processed as soon as possible to avoid bruising and molding. Smaller growers without an olive press must transport their olives to larger growers for processing. But as the number of small-scale growers increases within an area, the establishment of a communal press becomes a viable option.
• Extra-virgin olive oil is a natural fruit juice that preserves the taste, aroma, vitamins and properties of the olive fruit. It’s the only vegetable oil that can be consumed as is, fresh from the fruit.
• Freshly pressed olive oil is cloudy due to the small particles of olives that are suspended in the oil. Many people love the taste of the extra-virgin nectar, with its assertive flavor and very spicy back-of-the-throat finish—often shocking to the uninitiated palate. Known as oliva nueva, the oil is stored in barrels for about two months to allow the olive particles to settle to the bottom before the oil is bottled.
• Extra-virgin olive oil has an acidity level of less than 0.8 percent. Olives must be pressed within 24 hours of picking so that the acid level doesn’t increase, ideally at a temperature of no higher than 86 degrees (high-heat extraction methods produce more oil, but the subtle flavor characteristics of the olive are lost).
• Extra-virgin olive oil is high in monounsaturated fats (fatty acids) and polyphenols, which are antioxidant substances. Studies have shown that olive oil protects the body from heart disease by controlling LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol levels, while raising HDL, or “good,” cholesterol levels. No other naturally produced oil has as much monounsaturated fatty acids as olive oil. Research also suggests that including extra-virgin olive oil in the diet may bolster the immune system and aid in preventing colon cancer.
• Much of the olive oil imported into the U.S. is shipped in barrels and bottled here. The oil in any given bottle of imported oil on the shelf may have come from several different countries and various sources, having been blended together before being shipped to the U.S. Once bottled here, the oil is generally given a “best by” date of two years from the final bottling date, but the oil could be substantially older.
• A recent study done by the UC Davis Olive Center revealed that about a third of the Americans who participated in the study actually preferred the taste of rancid olive oils to the taste of fresh olive oils because their palates had become unaccustomed to the complexity and depth of fresh oil. Between lower standards and lower expectations, the American consumer is an easy mark for the lower-quality, imported oils. American buyers should use price as a guideline to the quality of olive oil. Consumers should be wary of any olive oil labeled extra-virgin that costs less than $10 for a 500-milliliter bottle (slightly over a pint).
• The USDA standards for labeling olive oil were enacted in 1948 and have never been updated. These standards are lower than the standards set by the International Olive Council (IOC), but the IOC standards apply only in countries that are members of the organization, and the U.S. is not a member. In addition, flavorless and often low-quality, highly refined olive oil is sold at a premium price in the U.S. and marketed as “lite” or “light” olive oil. The “light” designation refers only to flavor, as all olive oil has the same number of calories, and the terms “lite” or “light” have no official definition, according to food marketing authority Karen Lee of Texas Olive Ranch. In a positive step to improve industry transparency, California and Connecticut recently passed legislation that requires labels on all bottles of olive oil sold in those states to include the origin of the oil.
• Overall demand for olive oil in the U.S. is increasing at the rate of 20 percent annually. Currently, U.S. production amounts to only 0.1 percent of the amount produced worldwide, with California producing 99 percent of the U.S. crop. According to the Olive Oil Source, 460 million gallons of olive oil are produced worldwide annually, but 486 million gallons are consumed.
A NO-WASTE CROP: The entire olive tree can be used to create products, beginning with the fruit, which is pressed for oil or brined for use as table olives and spreads such as tapenades. The pomace left after crushing the olives is used as compost and cattle feed. The oil is used in a variety of culinary applications and also for making skin-softening soaps. Leaves of the olive tree are used in making skin and beauty products, often in conjunction with the oil, while olive-leaf tea, which contains more antioxidants than green tea due to a high level of polyphenols, is becoming increasingly popular. Finally, olive wood is a hardwood with a particularly lovely grain that is used to produce long-lasting kitchen utensils and decorative home accessories.