Agri Leader

Grower eyes the potential of olives in Florida

Could olives one day be a successful commercial ag venture in Florida?

There's no clear answer yet, but Michael O'Hara Garcia of the Florida Olive Council is investigating.

Garcia always has had an interest in olives - they were a part of his upbringing because of his Spanish family background - and he learned a few years back that olives were brought to Florida by explorers and grown here several hundred years ago. He also found out that Florida had a few active hobby growers, but there was no central place to turn to for more information about olive growing in Florida.

Garcia has since formed the Florida Olive Council, which is part of a project with the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agriculture Sciences. The goal is to find out how easy (or not) it is to grow olive trees in the Sunshine state.

Garcia characterizes the state's olive growers into three categories: backyard growers with 15 to 20 trees, small farmers with three to eight acres and up to 400 trees, and high-density growers with a few hundred trees per acre. The latter approach is more common in Spain and California, two areas of the world famous for olive growing. With high-density growers, the olives are most commonly used to make olive oil.

Garcia estimates that there are about 300 acres of olive trees spread throughout Florida, including a few test plots managed by the Florida Olive Council and the University of Florida. "Those are to see how different varieties will do," Garcia said, noting that about 20 different olive varieties are undergoing experimentation. There are also some commercial growers on the Florida and Georgia border, he added.

It probably doesn't surprise you that California is the largest producer of olives and olive oil in the United States. However, it surprised me to learn from Garcia that 98 percent of the 90 million gallons of olive oil we consume each year is imported.

It's still unclear if olives could one day be an alternative to Florida's traditional crops like citrus, which face increasing threats from disease and overseas competition. "The jury's still out," he said. "We know olives can grow here, but we don't know how they produce on a large scale. From an agricultural point of view, we need to continue these trials to see the productivity."

Garcia said their research may show that olive growth is economically viable for smaller farmers. Still, it could be another five years before there are clear answers. It takes at least three years for crops to fully produce.

Researchers may be able to develop a cultivar that needs fewer "chill hours" - a certain degree of cold temperature - that can grow further south in the state, said Garcia.

Although there is some olive growth in Florida, you can't yet buy Florida olives or olive oil at your local supermarket. There may be small finds at local farmers' markets, but anything at a commercial level won't be ready for at least a year, said Garcia.

Still, if olive growth is viable in Florida, it has a potentially large market, including a large Hispanic population that uses it often when cooking and those following the Mediterranean diet, which focuses on the use of olive oil. Another potential market is anyone interested in locally sourced food, said Garcia.