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Texas Olive Oil Producers Eye Formation of Advisory Board

The advisory board would provide olive growers and oil producers with more access to state and federal funds as well as increase their lobbying clout in Austin.

Texas Farm Bureau
Jul. 30, 2018
By Daniel Dawson
Texas Farm Bureau

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“We’re not trying to re-invent the wheel,” Cathy Bernell said with a laugh. “We’re look­ing to get on the wagon.”

Bernell is a board member of the Texas Association of Olive Oil (TXAOO) as well as an olive farmer and oil pro­ducer in east­ern Texas, who is trying to estab­lish and enforce olive oil qual­ity stan­dards in the state.

We’re basi­cally look­ing to become a domes­tic sup­plier of olives and extra virgin olive oil at a sub­stan­tial level.- Cathy Bernell, Texas Association of Olive Oil

Last week, she went up to the Hill in Austin and sat in on a hear­ing at the Agriculture and Livestock Committee of the state’s House of Representatives. Members of the TXAOO made their case to become an advi­sory board.

“[The hear­ing] went beyond expec­ta­tions. It was ter­rific,” Bernell told Olive Oil Times. “We were extremely well received by the leg­isla­tive mem­bers. And we had mem­bers of our indus­try show up.”

She thor­oughly believes that the Texas olive oil sector could only ben­e­fit from form­ing an advi­sory board.

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Those ben­e­fits could come in the form of grant fund­ing from the Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA); the imple­men­ta­tion and enforce­ment of qual­ity stan­dards for virgin and extra virgin olive oil; and fund­ing for olive-spe­cific edu­ca­tional pro­grams at uni­ver­si­ties, akin to the University of California, Davis Olive Center

“The pur­pose of that is basi­cally to have [the leg­is­la­ture] rec­og­nize our indus­try in such a manner that when fed­eral funds, state funds, leg­is­la­tion, any of those come along, that we’re a con­sid­er­a­tion,” Bernell said. “They’re not just going to think about pecans and peaches now, they’re going to think about olives as well.”

In order to offi­cially become an advi­sory board, the TXAOO must send a peti­tion to the TDA. Then it will be up to the com­mis­sioner, Sid Miller, to approve the peti­tion or not.

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Last week’s meet­ing at the Texas House of Representatives was the first step toward making and sub­mit­ting the peti­tion. Bernell said that the Dan Hunter, the assis­tant com­mis­sioner, had whole­heart­edly given his sup­port to the TXAOO, leav­ing the impres­sion that a peti­tion would be approved once it was sub­mit­ted.

“It is my under­stand­ing from the com­mis­sioner that it’s not a prob­lem,” Bernell said. “I don’t want to call it a slam dunk because noth­ing ever is, but I think we’re on a very pos­i­tive path with that.”

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Mark Loeffler, a spokesman for the TDA, said that the depart­ment had not yet received an offi­cial peti­tion from the TXAOO and did not com­ment on the like­li­hood of its imme­di­ate approval. However, he told Olive Oil Times that the TDA is fully sup­port­ive of the sector and believes it has great poten­tial.

“The Texas olive oil indus­try has unlim­ited poten­tial for growth as it offers oppor­tu­ni­ties at the retail and restau­rant level, and agri­tourism,” he said. “Commissioner Miller has worked hard to ensure TDA has the lead role in pro­mot­ing Texas-grown prod­ucts, at home and around the world.”

Among the ways in which the TDA already sup­ports the olive sector is through award­ing spe­cialty crop grants to the TXAOO and pro­vid­ing fund­ing through the Young Farmer Grant Program.

Specialty crop grants may be applied for by Texas fruit and veg­etable farm­ers on a bian­nual basis and pro­vide fund­ing “to enhance the com­pet­i­tive­ness of spe­cialty crops.” According to the TDA, the funds may be used for mar­ket­ing and indus­try devel­op­ment, both of which Bernell believes are cru­cial for grow­ing the sector.

The Young Farmer Grant Program matches dollar-for-dollar any invest­ment in cre­at­ing or expand­ing a Texas agri­cul­tural busi­ness up to $20,000. All appli­cants must be under the age of 46 in order to be eli­gi­ble for the fund­ing.

However, Bernell believes the for­ma­tion of an advi­sory board would be a more effec­tive way to pro­vide fund­ing for the three main tar­gets of the TXAOO: research, mar­ket­ing and stan­dard­iza­tion.

Christopher Kasmiroski is the owner of Texas Angel Oil, which oper­ates in east­ern Texas. He told Olive Oil Times that while he was unaware of the push for reg­u­la­tion by the TXAOO, he believes that the estab­lish­ment of stan­dards will spur growth in the sector.

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“I will say a long-held belief I still hold is that I hope any reg­u­la­tion encour­ages new entre­pre­neurs to enter into the olive oil indus­try,” he said.

Currently, there are no stan­dards for Texas olive oil pro­duc­ers and the TDA has no hand in reg­u­lat­ing the indus­try.

“We kind of have a gen­tle­man’s agree­ment that we will use California’s stan­dards,” Bernell said. Once the advi­sory board is set up and stan­dards have been estab­lished, she hopes that the TDA can then begin to col­lect and test sam­ples, acting as an enforcer.

She also hopes the more avail­able funds will allow for research into deter­min­ing which olive vari­eties grow best in dif­fer­ent parts of Texas as well as how to mit­i­gate the effects of early spring thaws and freezes. The latter hap­pened in January 2017, when an 89-degree day quickly turned into a 25-degree one, dam­ag­ing some olive crops in the state.

In Bernell’s view, edu­ca­tion comes hand-in-hand with research. She looks to California, where the UC Davis Olive Center has cre­ated a gen­er­a­tion of olive-spe­cific aca­d­e­mics in the state that has become syn­ony­mous with American-made olive oil. Bernell wants Texas to shift this par­a­digm.

“We need accred­ited uni­ver­si­ties to edu­cate our young people in olives just the same way they do with grapes,” she said. “I know Texas A&M, Sam Houston State University and Texas Tech are all on board with the olive indus­try and they would all very much wel­come some­thing along the line of an olive center.”

The prob­lem, again, comes back to fund­ing. Bernell once again cir­cles back to the impor­tance of the advi­sory board, which is the common denom­i­na­tor in get­ting this vision for Texas olive oil off of the ground.

Once the advi­sory board is estab­lished the next step will be to begin the leg­isla­tive process to create the stan­dards and enforce­ment mech­a­nisms. The Texas House of Representatives is out of ses­sion until January 2019.

Until then, Bernell and others at the TXAOO are speak­ing to mem­bers of the asso­ci­a­tion, which is com­posed of the major­ity of the state’s olive grow­ers, in order to deter­mine what their wants and needs are. She has also enlisted a former TDA offi­cial-turned-lob­by­ist to help nav­i­gate the leg­isla­tive process.

“Then the next step is to get the leg­is­la­tion writ­ten in con­junc­tion with our mem­bers to make sure that our mem­bers are on board and agree with the path that we’re on,” she said. “And again, we’re not rein­vent­ing the wheel, we’re def­i­nitely pulling from every­body’s stan­dards and leg­is­la­tion, from California to Australia, and learn­ing from them.”

Texas may be a new arrival to the sector, but Bernell does not count out a mete­oric rise from Lone Star State pro­duc­ers. After all, Texas gen­er­ates the second-largest amount of rev­enue from sell­ing agri­cul­tural prod­ucts in the U.S. (California is the only state that gen­er­ates more.)

“The infra­struc­ture in Texas for such a young indus­try is quite good. We have a number of mills, we have a number of depend­able part­ners, we have the mobile mill,” Bernell said. “We’re basi­cally look­ing to become a domes­tic sup­plier of olives and extra virgin olive oil at a sub­stan­tial level.”