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As Citrus Struggles, Some Olive Growers Take Root in Florida

Olives are not new to the Sunshine State, but their economic viability is coming into the spotlight as citrus struggles.

Oct. 19, 2018
By Daniel Dawson

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On a small, 35-acre island in Grov­e­land, Florida, Keith Keogh plans to grow olives where cit­rus trees once dom­i­nated the land­scape.

We can’t sup­port a state full fo asphalt and con­crete, we need to pre­serve some of these beau­ti­ful sugar sand hills that are out here.- Keith Keogh, Olave

We’ll start by grow­ing table olives at first,” Keogh, a for­mer cor­po­rate chef at Dis­ney and Red Lob­ster, told Olive Oil Times. Then you’ll have ones that aren’t of the qual­ity and appear­ance of table olives that will go to olive oil and we’ll do a sin­gles press on those olives.”

Depend­ing on the qual­ity of those olives, the olive oil will then either be put into jars or go towards use in cos­met­ics. We don’t want to put our stamp on any­thing that isn’t of very high qual­ity,” Keogh said.

Grow­ing olives in Florida is not new. The Span­ish first intro­duced olive trees to the state in the 1700s and, accord­ing to the Florida Farm Bureau, there are now more than 400 acres of olive trees in the Sun­shine State, rang­ing from com­mer­cial grow­ers with more than 20 acres to back­yard hob­by­ists.

Keogh’s endeavor serves as a model to find out how olive trees might play out in Florida’s agri­cul­tural future. Before he can plant his olive trees on Hunt Island, Keogh is clear­ing out the old and dying cit­rus trees, many of which have been rav­aged by a dis­ease known as cit­rus green­ing.

Cit­rus green­ing is an insect-borne dis­ease that has been dis­rupt­ing the indus­try in Florida since it emerged in the mid-2000s.

Accord­ing to the United States Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture, cit­rus pro­duc­tion has declined by more than 75 per­cent in Florida over the past two decades; a stark decrease for the state that is almost syn­ony­mous with orange juice.

There’s a need to have another crop,” Keogh said. When you really look at North Africa and other parts of the Mediter­ranean where olives are grown, it is a sandy and high lyme type of soil and the island’s soil kind of reminds me of that.”

Keogh is not alone in believ­ing that olives have the poten­tial to grow well in Florida. Sev­eral researchers within the Uni­ver­sity of Florida sys­tem have spent the last half-decade look­ing into this ques­tion and exper­i­ment­ing as well.

Thus far, olives have been rel­a­tively pest free, and appear to be a sus­tain­able crop for this region,” Peter Ander­sen, from the Uni­ver­sity of Florida, North Florida Research and Edu­ca­tion Cen­ter, said.

Keogh’s property on Hunt Island

In 2006, the uni­ver­sity planted five dif­fer­ent types of olive vari­etals: Arbe­quina, Arbosana, Koroneiki, Man­zanillo and Mis­sion.

A very small crop was noted for Arbe­quina and Koreneiki dur­ing 2015,” Ander­sen said. The first sub­stan­tial yield occurred for Arbe­quina dur­ing 2016, with 38 per­cent of a full crop. Koroneiki and Arbosana had a very small crop, with 12 per­cent and three per­cent of a full crop, respec­tively, and Man­zanillo and Mis­sion pro­duced no crop.”

Sim­i­lar research con­ducted at the Uni­ver­sity of Florida at Gainesville largely sup­ported Andersen’s find­ings. A 2015 report described Florida’s sandy soils as a suit­able loca­tion for grow­ing olive trees.

Olives may be estab­lished in many areas of Florida in well-drained soils,” the report said.

On his sandy-soiled island, Keogh plans on grow­ing mostly Arbe­quina olives. He will also exper­i­ment with Man­zanilla and Mis­sion but in much smaller quan­ti­ties.

Florida is not the ideal cli­mate for grow­ing olives. The tem­per­a­ture rarely gets cold enough for long enough to allow the trees to become dor­mant, which then allows them to pro­duce fruit. How­ever, Keogh said for prob­lems such this one, olive grow­ers will have to be inno­v­a­tive.

It’s a mat­ter of just fig­ur­ing out what it takes to get the best qual­ity,” he said. They will not be a copy or imi­ta­tion of what’s already there because this is a dif­fer­ent place and a dif­fer­ent cli­mate, a dif­fer­ent soil makeup. ”

To sup­port his argu­ment, he points to the fledg­ling Florida wine indus­try, which has come up with their own inno­v­a­tive way to get their vines to become dor­mant.

When you look at some of these winer­ies that are grow­ing great grapes, they have to have the 60 to 80 day freez­ing period to become dor­mant and you don’t get that in Florida,” he said. They come up with dif­fer­ent ways, such as inject­ing liq­uid CO2 into the ground and cre­at­ing dor­mancy that way, which makes sure those great grapes come out.”

How­ever, get­ting the olives to grow is just half of the bat­tle. Mak­ing them eco­nom­i­cally viable for both the farm­ers and the state will prove to be much more chal­leng­ing. Nowhere is this bet­ter illus­trated than on the Florida Depart­ment of Agriculture’s web­site, which is dom­i­nated by cit­rus.

Painstak­ingly detailed reports each year show how many oranges, grape­fruits and tan­ger­ines are being grown, har­vested and sold. There are even tables show­ing exact quan­ti­ties of exports to more than a dozen dif­fer­ent coun­tries from at least five Florid­ian ports over the past decade.

The web­site does not con­tain nor does it link to any sta­tis­tics about olive grow­ing or pro­duc­tion.

Aerial view of Hunt Island

Right now we are still in the research stage in Florida,” Michael Gar­cia, pres­i­dent of the Florida Olive Coun­cil, told the Orlando Sen­tinel. You can grow olives here, just not enough yet to be a big indus­try.”

Gar­cia did not respond to sev­eral requests for com­ment on this arti­cle but told the indus­try trade pub­li­ca­tion, My Farm Life, that the Florida Olive Coun­cil is exper­i­ment­ing both with tra­di­tional cul­ti­va­tion meth­ods as well as super-inten­sive farm­ing. He said that pre­lim­i­nary results are so far promis­ing, but it will take more time to see which method will work best going for­ward.

We can make olive oil,” Gar­cia said. It’s just a ques­tion of under­stand­ing whether it’s going to be small farms with high-qual­ity olives or large-den­sity.”

Olive oil pro­duc­ers in south and cen­tral Florida usu­ally pro­duce about a few hun­dred gal­lons of oil each year, which is mostly sold directly to con­sumers. Gar­cia told the Palm Beach Post that the state’s pro­duc­ers would have to wait and see how quickly this mod­est total could grow into some­thing larger.

We have to see if it works,” he said. We do not know year-over-year if you can get olives to bloom and set fruit in suf­fi­cient quan­ti­ties to be able to make money on it. If you make olive oil, you can sell it, there’s no prob­lem. The ques­tion is, can you make enough to make a profit at it?”

Keogh echoes this con­cern. He said that many farm­ers in Lake County have given up on farm­ing and sold their land for devel­op­ment. An alter­na­tive that they did not nec­es­sar­ily like, but saw as most eco­nom­i­cally viable.

The eco­nomic via­bil­ity is, of course, another ques­tions,” he said. A lot of these orange grove own­ers have lost a lot of their groves to dis­ease and are find­ing that maybe sell­ing the land for hous­ing or apart­ments is more eco­nomic for them.”

But I tell you,” he added. We can’t sup­port a state full fo asphalt and con­crete, we need to pre­serve some of these beau­ti­ful sugar sand hills that are out here.”

Richard Williams runs Florida Olive Sys­tems, which pro­vides cut­tings for and advises numer­ous olive grow­ers around the state, includ­ing Keogh. Williams said that olive grow­ers and trade groups should apply some of the inno­va­tion they use for grow­ing olives into find­ing new prod­ucts for which to use olives.

Flori­da’s unique geo­graph­i­cal grow­ing con­di­tions and its impact on the trees’ over­all phe­no­lic com­pound pro­duc­tion is val­i­dat­ing my ini­tial hypoth­e­sis,” he told Olive Oil Times.

That being, we may ulti­mately not be able to pro­duce the nec­es­sary poundage of fruit per acre to be a viable com­mer­cial com­mod­ity extra vir­gin olive oil loca­tion, but from a poten­tial med­i­c­i­nal aspect and what ulti­mately can be extracted from var­i­ous parts of the tree, we might be a very strong grow­ing loca­tion.”





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