Florida Farmers Lay the Foundation for a Growing South East Industry

River Run Olive Oil Company is planting new groves in Florida armed with a keen attention to agricultural details and advice from colleagues from across the country.

Nov. 1, 2018
By Joanne Drawbaugh

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As the part­ners at River Run planned their Florida company’s future busi­ness back in 2014, they found them­selves search­ing for new avenues to explore. We have corn, we have cows, let’s try some­thing dif­fer­ent,” recalled Mike Casey, man­ag­ing part­ner of River Run Olive Oil. Their inter­est was piqued by California’s bur­geon­ing olive oil indus­try and won­dered if pro­duc­ing olives in the Southeast United States might be pos­si­ble. They asked Casey and his wife Connie to inves­ti­gate.

We’re tak­ing baby steps. We have to get to the olive first.- Mike Casey, River Run Olive Oil

The Casey couple’s research led them on a jour­ney across the coun­try to explore oper­a­tions in Georgia, California, Texas and Arizona. Based on their own inde­pen­dent research, they under­stood that Central Florida’s lat­i­tude was for­tu­itously sit­u­ated for olive grow­ing. After learn­ing under the guid­ance of grow­ers, they set out to deter­mine more specifics on the con­di­tions in their own areas.

Casey con­ferred with var­i­ous weather sta­tions around the loca­tion for their pro­posed groves. He found that the area typ­i­cally expe­ri­ences 500 – 700 chill hours per year where the tem­per­a­ture sits at approx­i­mately 50°F (10°C) with rel­a­tive con­sis­tency. This period would allow a win­dow to put the trees into rest. The stars were lin­ing up,” Mike Casey said.

Still, Connie won­dered, If you’re suc­cess­ful and you grow the trees, what the hell are you going to do with all the oil?” River Run Olive Oil was born. With Connie’s help, and the edu­ca­tion they gleaned from con­sumers, grow­ers, and chefs, the new com­pany set a plan in motion to begin their own plant­i­ngs.

Casey con­tin­u­ally empha­sized the South East olive oil industry’s nascency, stat­ing that it has only been in exis­tence for roughly 6 – 7 years. For a crop that’s been grown for mil­len­nia, this is but a blip in time. There’s a lot of vary­ing degrees of knowl­edge,” he said, explain­ing what sources were most impor­tant in embark­ing on the ambi­tious project.

He attrib­uted a great deal of grat­i­tude to grow­ers in Georgia and Jennifer Gillett-Kaufman of the University of Florida (UF), and Louise Ferguson, a UF grad who served as an edi­tor of the Olive Production Manual. Casey also cited Bruce Golino of the Santa Cruz olive tree nurs­ery, Jim Etters of Seka Hills Olive Oil Co., Adam Englehardt of the American Olive Oil Producers Association and the team at Corto Olive Oil. He said that with the knowl­edge pro­vided by these com­pe­tent col­leagues, he felt com­fort­able decid­ing to throw cau­tion to the wind” to a cer­tain degree, rather than let­ting the avail­able land sit idly by, unused.

Casey also stressed the trial-and-error nature of the efforts required to build this new indus­try. Transportation of new trees proved an ini­tially fore­bod­ing oppo­nent, as prop­a­ga­tion only takes place in the West. The team orig­i­nally opted for smaller trees to save on trans­porta­tion costs, but as Casey explains, the smaller the tree, the higher the mor­tal­ity rate.” New trees suf­fered at the hands of the long jour­ney to Florida. The California peo­ple tried to explain it, but we were naïve and igno­rant.” Some lessons are bet­ter learned through expe­ri­ence.

In plant­ing the trees, Casey recalled they went into the plain dirt, bar­ren ground,” tak­ing a page from their col­leagues in California. However, they soon learned that con­di­tions in Florida vary from those on the West Coast, where rain­falls mea­sure 14 inches per year to Florida’s 40. California’s humid­ity typ­i­cally hov­ers at 20 – 30 per­cent, whereas Florida’s can range from 80 – 90 per­cent. While mois­ture and humid­ity can grow a tree rapidly, they also posed an obsta­cle, as Casey soon bat­tled against a pro­lif­er­a­tion of weeds,” remark­ing, the weeds grow faster than the trees.”

He relayed the learn­ing curve on mas­ter­ing the vari­ables of plant­ing, mois­ture and her­bi­cide. In per­fect­ing their method, he noted that they did some her­bi­cide dam­age on young, early trees. This expe­ri­ence taught the team that plant­ing into sod, rather than untouched dirt, would help com­bat this heavy weed pres­sure,” and that once [they] got grass and turf estab­lished, the weeds were min­i­mal.” Furthermore, young and ten­der” grass also dis­tracts insects from feast­ing on the olive trees. Even with these mea­sures in place, ideal areas for plant­ing changed with weather con­di­tions. One year after plant­ing their first trees, Hurricane Irma took the state by storm, caus­ing the water tables to rise. This posed addi­tional con­cerns to be accounted or.

The new groves incor­po­rate many of the lat­est tech­nolo­gies to aid in deal­ing with the myr­iad vari­ables present in suc­cess­fully run­ning an olive oper­a­tion. There is a weather sta­tion on each of River Run’s groves mea­sur­ing for wind, mois­ture, and evap­o­ra­tion, and manip­u­lat­ing a com­put­er­ized irri­ga­tion sys­tem based on con­di­tions. There is one soil probe for every forty acres of trees.

Based on pro­jec­tions from California, Casey esti­mates that each tree should yield 15 – 40 pounds of olives per year, a wide range account­ing for rel­a­tive uncer­tainty. The groves were pre­dom­i­nantly planted in the super-high-den­sity (SHD) fash­ion, though they do incor­po­rate a European model for big­ger, older trees at the entrance­way to the farm. This allows researchers from UF an oppor­tu­nity to com­pare the two mod­els, and res­i­dents from the sur­round­ing areas to poten­tially par­tic­i­pate in a pick-your-own pro­gram in the future. Casey notes that the har­di­ness of olive trees means they are well built for such exper­i­men­ta­tion.

When you make the elec­tion for high-den­sity, you make the elec­tion to go mechan­i­cal,” Casey pointed out The groves are planted with an array of vari­eties, includ­ing Arbequina (what Casey calls, the work­horse of the olive indus­try”), Arbosana, and Koroneiki, alter­nat­ing in rows to max­i­mize their poten­tial for pol­li­na­tion. This, too, posed a chal­lenge as Casey and his team found some pol­li­na­tors failed to thrive in colder tem­per­a­tures. They expe­ri­enced dam­ages recov­er­ing from chilly win­ters, though Casey con­tends that if grow­ers stay away for a while [they] will have some recov­ery.”

Eventually, by adapt­ing the knowl­edge they acquired from their California coun­ter­parts to their dis­tinct Florida con­di­tions, the groves at River Run were able to reduce their yearly dam­age from 25 per­cent to 12: Timing wasn’t on [our] side for trans­plant­ing.”

He also attrib­utes a great deal of suc­cess to the researchers from UF who have been about the grove, tak­ing count­less sam­ples every other Sunday for the sake of research. We are very for­tu­nate to have this type of rela­tion­ship.”

Casey’s con­cerns pre­dom­i­nantly lie with host­ing his first har­vest expected next year. When the time comes, he noted there will be no trou­ble find­ing facil­i­ties in the area to mill high-qual­ity olive oil. He claims the South East region is over-milled” and that there are more mills than there are olives.” Many are nearby, from Ocala and Live Oak to Valdosta. They also host suc­cess­ful co-op plans and have pre-exist­ing rela­tion­ships with the com­pany. Given the fact that they have invested so much money in their plant­ing and grow­ing oper­a­tions, he cur­rently does not have any inten­tion to build a pro­pri­etary mill on River Run’s prop­erty.

Casey is a tried-and-true farmer, whose focus lies in pro­duc­ing the best prod­uct rather than the retail and mar­ket­ing chan­nels fur­ther down the chain. We’re tak­ing baby steps,” he explained. Before con­sid­er­ing these next steps, they first need to get the trees grow­ing. As for River Run’s place in the larger mar­ket, Casey humbly stated, We’re so small — I’m sure Publix sells more oil in one day than we can make in a year.”

Someday they plan to pen­e­trate the spe­cialty mar­ket, with its growth poten­tial in Florida’s met­ro­pol­i­tan areas but, as Casey noted, We have to get to the olive first.” His com­mit­ment to build­ing a firm foun­da­tion for the rest of the South East indus­try to grow upon may prove to be an impact Casey has yet to real­ize.


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