Florida Growers Court a New Alternative Crop
by PAUL CATALA
When it comes to Florida produce and agriculture, the names Navel, Hamlin, Pineapple, Ambersweet and Valencia are a lot more common than Arbequina, Ascolano, Taggiasca, or Sevillano.
Although Florida is noted for its citrus production, olives may hold promise for farmers looking for alternatives.
The conditions for growing olives in Florida are favorable. The state’s sandy, well-drained soils, plentiful sun and abundant rainfall mirror the Mediterranean, where olive trees have thrived for thousands of years. In addition, olives in Florida get ripe before those in California, which is a big advantage for growers in this area
Florida olive growers report they are seeing a more viable market over the past 10 years as more private and corporate farms are planting the seeds for olive production.
“I think we’d be even further along if it wasn’t for the COVID situation,” says Michael O’Hara Garcia, president of the Florida Olive Council who is based in Lacrosse and is involved in olive research promoting olives as an alternative crop in Florida.
“That’s kind of been holding us up. We’ll be doing better here in a while. We’re more of less focusing on discovering or developing a low-chill olive cultivar that we can bring down to South Florida that will perform better than the northern Mediterranean varieties that we currently have.”
There are about 800 acres under active cultivation being worked by about 80 farmers in Florida, Garcia explains. They range from 50 to 100 acres in North Florida down to five-acre test plots in the central parts of the state, in a total of about 20 counties.
Garcia said most of the cultivars in Florida now come from northern California nurseries, primarily growing olive native to the northern Mediterranean.
Around the state, there are currently two modern olive mills and Florida nurseries propagating olive trees for the fruit and for ornamental purposes.
Garcia adds that just over the Florida line, the Swiss agricultural management firm Agrigrada runs a 4,000-acre olive grove near Colquitt, Georgia, and a 300-acre olive grove and a modern olive mill serving growers near Valdosta, Georgia.
“The varieties we have to deal with are native to the northern Mediterranean, they require 300 chill hours, one hour between 32 degrees and 45 degrees. As you move further south, they don’t do as well because they don’t get sufficient chill,” says Garcia.
He says the Olive Council partners have about 40 varieties from the Middle East, North Africa and Australia housed in a research facility with the Hardee County Industrial Development Authority near Wauchula. There are several thousand olive trees there.
Also, Garcia says the Olive Council partners with several large corporations such as Lykes Brothers and Mosaic, among others. Mosaic has olives growing on strip mine land in Bowling Green, cultivating about 600 pounds of olives in 2020 on less than an acre.
“They’re pretty excited about if things can work out. The olive trees grow very well on that strip mine land,” he says.
Currently, Spain is the largest producer of olive oil, followed by Italy and Greece. In the United States, olives are commercially grown and profitable in California and Texas. There are experimental olive plantings in Georgia, Florida, Louisiana and Alabama, with many of those farmers growing olives as a hobby.
Garcia says Florida has the right weather and market proximity to the northeast, which gives the state an advantage in growing olives. He says much of the state’s dead citrus crops — about 250,000 acres — also offer more sites for olive growth. While a solution to citrus greening is sought, many farmers south of Interstate 4 are seeking an alternative crop to supplement citrus.
“Olives make about $3,000 an acre, similar to oranges,” says Garcia. “If we could find a grove crop that utilizes the citrus infrastructure, something like olives, it could be a real boon,” he says.
Dana Venrick, a retired Volusia County extension agent who specializes in commercial horticulture, says there’s a strong future in olives in Florida, particularly where there are enough “chill hours” in the season.
Speaking from his Quality Green Specialists retail nursery in Deland, Venrick — who retired as an extension agent in June 2010 as a commercial horticulture agent after 10 years specializing in fruiting plants, olives, citrus and flowers — says his nursery has about 500 olive trees in stock at the nursery, with three primary varieties currently blooming, such as the Tunisian Chimlali, Koroneiki olives from Greece and Arbequinas from Spain.
Venrick says he planted small groves in Deland, Winter Haven and Lake Wales.
Venrick says olives are only born on the previous season’s growth. They need to be pruned hard in March, and the following spring the new flowers and fruit sprout. Olives in Florida ripen about a month before they do in California, a benefit for growers.
“We’re learning about a very unique situation in Florida. We have very sandy soils. Olives are native to volcanic-type soil…so we have to simulate those conditions here. We have to focus on making the soil very alkaline,” he says. “They do incredibly well here, the weather is great, there’s enough chill hours. With the right practices, we’re seeing good production.”
The chill hours are crucial for good olive crops in Florida, says Kevin Folta, a professor in the University of Florida horticulture sciences department. One of the primary problems with growing commercial olives in Florida is few varieties adapted to lower latitudes where there is less winter chill; a chill hour is one hour between 32- and 45-degrees Fahrenheit.
Folta, in his 18th year with the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS), says IFAS has done much work with researching the growth patterns for olives. He adds olive growth is increasing with many people “trying to make that happen.”
“The beautiful part about that is it gives us lots of trees growing in diverse environments, many varieties in diverse soils spanning the state of Florida,” he says, noting counties such as Gilchrist, Marion, Hillsborough and Hardee have significant olive acreage.
Folta says the olive growing in Florida is viable mostly due to the climate, buffered by the temperatures of the surrounding waters, mimicking the Mediterranean. He says some of the adverse problems in the state for growing olives are the occasional extreme cold as well as a lack of sufficient cold.
“You need certain amounts of chilling hours where the plants will start to commit to setting for flowering. They have trouble flowering in Florida generally. It’s getting the ‘Goldilocks’ zone of temperature where they’ll perform as they do in the Mediterranean,” he adds.
As for olives as a viable crop or just a niche harvests, Folta says he thinks the crop is growing, but the future is “between zero and blockbuster,” and will be determined by how much energy is put into getting funding for olive-growing research rather than just citrus.
“Diversifying and having new crops, including olives, would be great for farmers and would be great for the state. It is an exciting target because of the potential revenue income per acre. As far as growing olives, I think it’s a question not of ‘why,’ but of ‘why not?’ ”