Florida-grown olive oil potential is limitless

Oct 01, 17 Florida-grown olive oil potential is limitless

By Vicky Boyd

With the United States producing only a fraction of the total olive oil consumed nationally each year, the potential for Florida-grown olive oil is nearly limitless.

“We consume about 80 million gallons of olive oil a year, and we (the United States) produce maybe 3 to 4 percent of that,” said Michael O’Hara Garcia, president of the non-profit Florida Olive Council in Gainesville. “If you can make olive oil, you can sell it. We could probably sell all of the olive oil we could produce in Florida.”

To capitalize on the market, growers and researchers will first have to overcome a number of hurdles, including finding suitable varieties, determining potential pests and building infrastructure.

But Garcia said he believes it is doable – olives have been grown in Florida since the 1700s. Finding olive varieties for an area south of Interstate 4 that require fewer chill hours, however, will be more challenging.

A recently planted 20-acre experimental grove in Hardee County with varieties from Tunisia, the Canary Islands and North Africa is designed to identify trees that will perform under warmer conditions. The olive council also donated sets of 50 trees comprising 10 different cultivars to a few University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences research centers for trials.

Bill Lambert, economic development director with the Hardee County Industrial Development Commission, said he hopes the trial in his county will show olives as a possible alternative crop for citrus producers hard-hit by citrus greening.

“We hope citrus recovers, but in order to sustain our community we have to find other crops to grow,” said Lambert, who is supporting the olive council’s efforts. “We’re looking for other crops to add to Florida’s repertoire.”

olives-courtesy_jenniferGilThe industrial development commission also is exploring building an olive leaf extract plant, which could produce products even if trees don’t fruit. The extracts are used in soaps, fragrances and dietary supplements, among other items.

Florida olive oil pioneer

Don Mueller has already shown that growers can produce olives in North Florida. Since 1999, he has grown about 400 trees of various varieties near Marianna for both curing and oil. He recently sold his Green Gate Olive Grove for personal reasons.

Mueller first fell in love with olives when he and his family vacationed annually in Sorrento, Italy. The place where they stayed had a 50-acre olive grove around it.

“Over the years, the owner of the hotel had her sons and sons-in-law teach me how to grow them, how to harvest them, how to decide what time to harvest them,” Mueller said.

When he retired and moved to North Florida, he noticed the climate was almost identical to that of Sorrento. Mueller decided to replicate what he had seen in Italy.

Although large olive operations in California use mechanical harvesters with fingers that knock off the fruit, Mueller — with his much smaller acreage — used a tarp to catch the olives as he shook the trees. He also processed the fruit into oil with a small press.

In 2008, Mueller’s oil won an award at a Fort Lauderdale contest that attracted international entrants. It was a 50:50 blend of Mission and Arbequina, which Mueller said produces a delicate, buttery-flavored oil.

Extra virgin olive oil

For an olive oil industry to take off in the state, more than just hand presses will be needed, Garcia of the olive council said. Once olives are harvested, growers have only 24 to 48 hours to get them to a mill to be pressed before oil quality begins to deteriorate.

Already, small commercial mills have been built in Live Oak and Ocala and north of the state line in Lakeland, Ga. For them to succeed, Garcia said, each must process 150 to 200 acres’ worth of olives.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the International Olive Council have set strict chemical standards on what qualifies as extra virgin olive oil, known in the industry as EVOO. A University of California Davis study conducted in 2010 found that 69 percent of imported EVOO sampled failed to meet the IOC/USDA standards. Because of the high prices that EVOO can fetch, some purveyors dilute the olive oil with other less expensive oils.

That’s why the Florida Olive Council is working with UF/IFAS and the University of Georgia to develop testing protocols to ensure locally produced oils meet the strict standards. Those oils that pass muster will carry a logo saying they’ve been certified as EVOO.olive-ufl

Building a base

To build a base of knowledge from which a Florida olive industry can launch, UF/IFAS researchers are partnering with Florida growers to learn what they can about how olives will perform in Florida. Jennifer Gillett-Kaufman, an associate Extension scientist in Gainesville, is looking at possible insect pests.

“You know how Florida is,” she said. “If we don’t have a bug for a fruit or vegetable, we’ll get a pest for that fruit or vegetable.”

Gillett-Kaufman has already screened resident fruit fly species, and they don’t appear to be pests of olives. Fortunately, she said, Florida has been successful keeping out the olive fruit fly, which has plagued California olive producers.

Black scale, a pest of citrus, also is a potential pest of olives especially if new olive blocks are planted adjacent to old citrus groves, Gillett-Kaufman said.

Mack Thetford, an associate professor of landscape ornamentals and plant propagation at the UF/IFAS West Florida Research and Education Center in Jay, is looking at olive cultural practices.

All of this is in preparation for what Garcia said he hopes grows into a profitable industry.

“If it does work, you have to have a plan in place with consideration for milling, bottling, processing and marketing so the growth can be exponential,” he said. “If you don’t have that base, you cannot leverage your success moving forward.”

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