Florida Poised for Olive Production Boom
Mar 01, 2020 06:49PM
By Nancy DeVault
Olives have long been recognized as a sign of peace and prosperity in many cultures and even in the Bible. Now, Florida farmers are hoping this stone fruit will be their saving grace. Florida has led the nation in commercial citrus farming for decades, but in recent years, groves have been devastated by citrus greening disease, a debilitating bacterium. The subsequent decline in production has wreaked havoc on industry’s economy, forcing agriculturists to explore alternative crops like blueberries, grapes, hops, peaches and pomegranates. Some believe olives could become the Sunshine State’s shining star.
Roots of this agricultural transference are slowing taking hold thanks to Michael O’Hara Garcia. In 2011, he founded the Gainesville-based Florida Olive Council to examine if olives could serve as an environmentally considerate crop to sustain farming into the next century. It’s a tall tale, he admits, with many sidebars.
“There is a story of utilization of land, there is a story about bailing out the citrus industry and there is a story about opening new farm operations and giving people jobs,” Garcia explains about the overarching complexity. He’s spearheaded and even personally funded efforts with the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, the Mosaic Company and a handful of other partners to generate fundamental research.
Olive trees typically need 200 to 300 chill hours (between 32 and 45 degrees Fahrenheit) a year to flourish, similar to conditions in olive-producing counties like Spain, Italy and Greece around the northern rim of the Mediterranean Sea. But such temperatures aren’t guaranteed in southern states with subtropical climates. That’s why the Florida Olive Council has dedicated years to studying tree growth, soil and other components at more than 30 plantations statewide.
“Most traditional varieties don’t perform as well in the south. We’re working to find an olive cultivar that would do well below [Interstate] I-4 with less than 120 chill hours. That’s why we’re working with the [Middle Eastern and] North African varieties,” Garcia says. These are in contrast to the arbequina, arbosana and koroneiki varieties now most commonly used for olive oil production.
Demand for olives, and more specifically their pressed byproduct of olive oil, has spiked, thanks to scientifically proven payoffs. A staple of the Mediterranean diet, which is revered as one of the healthiest regimes, olive oil is praised as “liquid gold” that fights heart disease, cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s, among other benefits. American consumers use 90 million gallons of olive oil annually—the largest market outside of Europe—and yet the U.S. (primarily California) only produces roughly five percent of the olive oil consumed in this country.
There are about 80 olive growers in Florida, and some have the potential to help grow an American-based olive oil industry. But because this budding industry is still in its infancy, most of these cultivators operate smaller farms versus commercial businesses. “There are only a few bigger growers with anywhere from 30 to 200 acres, though the majority of growers are in the under-10-acre category,” Garcia estimates. Some produce oil in modest quantities, but Florida Olive Farms & Mill, a 20,000-tree orchard in Live Oak, currently operates the only commercial olive oil mill in the state.
Farmers are also advocating to protect the fruits of their labor. The U.S. International Trade Commission found that some imported extra virgin olive oils are fraudulently labeled. This revelation motivated the Florida Olive Council, Georgia Olive Growers Association and Texas Association of Olive Oil to align as the American Association of Olive Oil Producers (AOOPA) with a mission to create fair access to global markets and ensure the integrity and quality of olive oil. According to Garcia, because U.S. Department of Agriculture standards for olive oil are not being enforced, te AOOPA is petitioning the U.S. Federal Drug Administration to regulate the criteria. Consumers can help by voicing their support to state legislators.
For more information, visit FloridaOlive.org and SmallFarm.IFAS.ufl.edu.