Olives: A High-Value Crop for Marginal Land

Research delves into growing olives on strip-mined land.

By Claire Vath

While olive trees aren’t new in Florida and the state’s immediate neighbors to the north, a viable olive oil market is a recent development. Yet, there’s much research to be done, says Michael O’Hara Garcia, executive director of the Florida Olive Council, which he helped form in conjunction with the University of Florida in Gainesville to help push for more research.

While there are a few commercial olive oil operations starting out in the state, olive farming employs two different models:

“There’s the conventional model with 100 to 125 trees per acre,” explains Garcia. “And then high-density groves with 250 to 600 trees per acre. Florida has two high-density growers.”

The goal of the Florida Olive Council is to raise money to help fund University of Florida research. Several trials are already under way, one of which worked with Mosaic Corp., who was looking at alternative crops with Florida Citrus Mutual. Garcia says they planted test plots on old strip-mined land in Bowling Green, Fla.

“One variety has done extraordinarily well—Empeltre, a Spanish variety,” says Garcia. “We planted those in a small-farm approach. Mosaic wanted to make sure anything they did could accommodate both those models.”

This past spring, the partnership planted 400 trees in high density near the initial plot, and they’re taking to the soil fine so far. “It’ll be interesting if we can get these olives to produce,” Garcia adds. “We have a tremendous amount of strip-mined land here.

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

Fast Facts: Olives

• It takes 11 pounds of olives to yield 1 quart of extra virgin olive oil, considered the finest of all olive oil grades.

• An olive tree can live an average of 300 to 600 years, but there are trees markedly older.

• The al Badawi olive tree, located in Bethlehem, in the Palestinian West Bank, is somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000 years old. Located on the island of Crete, the Olive Tree of Vouves is an estimated 3,000-plus years old.

• Over the past two decades, annual U.S. olive oil consumption has increased to 80 million gallons a year (up from 30 million gallons in the last two decades), making it the third largest national market for olive oil.

• The United States produces 2% of the olive oil consumed in the country.

• Spain produces 35 to 50% of of olive oil worldwide, with Italy and Greece coming in second and third, respectively. California, which produces the overwhelming majority of U.S. oil, produces just .05% worldwide.