Contrary to what many think, olive trees have been grown and have thrived in Texas for over a century. But growing olives for personal use and growing them for commercial production are not the same, says the Jim Henry, owner of Texas Olive Ranch near Carrizo Springs and founder of the Texas Olive Council.
Henry says it requires hard work, a great deal of passion and fair size orchard to make money in a commercial olive operation.
He should know. Henry grows several varieties of olives at his ranch from more than 40,000 trees that produce high quality olives, cold pressed to deliver his trademark extra virgin oil that is winning accolades from olive growers as far away as California and even in Spain.
Henry's olive operation is so successful he is currently developing plans to expand by adding a second ranch near Victoria, an area he says may the best place in Texas to grow olives. Henry's Victoria ranch will consist of about 383 acres where nearly 300,000 olive trees will be planted.
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“Olives will grow in virtually any kind of environment and all kinds of soil, but the biggest issue Texas has with growing olives is the weather. Certain weather requirements are necessary to get consistent fruit production," Henry said.
In spite of the challenges of growing olives in Texas, the state's olive oil industry is growing and Henry sees a good future for Texas growers. For one thing, Texas olives are gaining a reputation as a remarkable fruit that makes an incredibly pure olive oil.
Texas Olive Ranch was awarded four medals for fine olive oil of outstanding taste, character and complexity in heavy competition at the Los Angeles International Extra Virgin Olive Oil Northern Hemisphere Competition a few years back. A silver medal was awarded to Texas Olive Ranch Arbequina variety extra virgin olive oil, and bronze were awarded to the Texas Olive Ranch Koroneiki variety extra virgin olive oil, the Roasted Garlic Infused Olive Oil, and the Mesquite Smoke Infused Olive Oil.
The Arbequina variety comes from Spain while the Koroneiki variety is of Greek origin.
“There’s a huge demand for olive oil," Henry explains. "The olive industry has such a dubious reputation for adulterated olive oil and people that understand it like to purchase locally produced olive products. So, why not make it in Texas?”
Henry said most of the olive oil found on store shelves is not true extra-virgin olive oil in spite of what is printed on the label. Research, like that done by the University of California-Davis Olive Center at the Robert Mondavi Institute, reveal nearly 75 percent of olive oils tested that claim to be extra-virgin failed to pass the test.
So Henry indicates producing a high grade extra-virgin olive oil may provide Texas growers an advantage over almost all other commercial olive producers domestically. The down side, if there is one, is that more care and attention must be given to the tree and in oil pressing to produce the superior product.
But consumer awareness and demand for healthier and better tasting food products provides an edge to Texas growers willing to meet the strict guidelines of producing the best olive oil "money can buy."
With so much focus on developing high grade olives and olive oil, is commercial olive production in Texas a reasonable crop to consider for new farmers or farmers looking to expand their crop options?
Henry says yes.
“If you do it on a commercial level, certainly it is a viable alternative crop. Of course it’s very difficult to make money if you plant only small olive orchards. Olives are a little more challenging than some crops, but commercial olive production has become an excellent opportunity for farmers looking into alternate crops,” Henry adds.
“People seem to think growing olives is different from other crops, but they’re not really any different than growing watermelons, peach trees, or any other commercial crop. You still have to trim the trees, kill the weeds, pick the fruit; it’s just as much hard work as anything else; it just depends how motivated you are to be successful at it.”
Henry says interested growers can expect to invest anywhere from $4,000 to $8,000 an acre to plant olive orchards. Fortunately, it’s all up-front cost and unlike many other crops requiring annual planting, olive trees will continue to grow 20 to 40 years.
“Olives are still a speculation crop in Texas and you’re not going to really find anyone willing to lend you money to plant them," he warns. "There is currently no government assistance available for olive production and it is difficult to go anywhere and borrow money for an agricultural product for any crop, but especially olives because there is no historical information available and it is a new industry in Texas.”