In the last five years the number of olive trees in Texas has increased rapidly, but even with tremendous growth several farmers say it’s not enough to call it the next oil boom.
Jim Henry, a pioneer in farming olives and founder of the Texas Olive Oil Council, said in the mid-1990s there were only a handful of trees, but in 2010 that number jumped to over 800,000. Today, Henry said, there are just over a million olive trees in Texas, which in 2013 produced an estimated 30,000-40,000 gallons of oil.
Henry also co-owns the Texas Olive Ranch near Carrizo Springs and said he has had to face some hard lessons along the way. He now passes that knowledge along to people interested in getting into the growing industry.
“I tell people you have to figure out what you want to be in five years," Henry said. "Do you want to have 100 acres? Do want to have 50 acres? Do you want to have a fruit stand in front of your farm? Do you want to sell the oil in barrels? Do you want to sell it to specialty stores?
"I mean, you got to figure out what you want to be and then you got to figure out how you’re going to get there. You can’t just plant an olive orchard and then not worry about what you’re going to do with the oil someday.”
Henry said he has seen several retirees lose everything on olive farming because they weren't sure what they were getting into.
In Wimberley Jack Daugherty owns the Bella Vista Ranch and said he is skeptical that olive oil will ever become a singular sustainable agricultural product in Texas.
“I don’t think there is or are many places in Texas, if any, that we can put thousands of trees in the ground and get consistent output that would support the kind of infrastructure that an industry is necessary to have in order to be successful,” Daugherty said.
Daugherty identified temperature spikes that he said have killed hundreds of trees, temperature spikes that may not be very regular occurrences in places like California, Spain or Italy, where olives are also grown successfully. Daugherty said olive trees are alternate-bearing, meaning one year a farmer might get a large crop and the next two years very little.
“We’re in Texas and we have a series of problems -- mostly weather related -- that affect our trees when they're young and that delays the actual time of production," Daugherty said. "And it delays productions of a good quality crop on a consistent basis, it certainly affected us.”
Daugherty pointed out some of the damaged trees from this winter.
“This year’s going to be a very light crop because we had a very bad winter, there are olives on the trees out there, we just went through a bloom cycle,” Daugherty said, pointing to the grayish nubs on the end of the tree’s blooms. They are tiny, about the size of a pin.
"You see some right there, these are getting to be a pretty big size," Daugherty said, lifting up the end of the plant's blooms. "You can tell that they’re olives, see that.”
The trees are generally harvested in the fall.
Daugherty said he has an estimated 1,200 olive trees and an equivalent sized vineyard, but neither of these, he said, compares to the money he makes from people wanting to visit and see firsthand a working farm that looks like the Tuscan countryside.
Daugherty said many of the bigger olive orchards use agri-tourism to supplement their income.
While there are some growing pains for the industry, Henry and the Texas Olive Oil Council believe the state could be close to making olive oil a well-established industry.
“What we really need in Texas are large commercial orchards with commercial farmers and we’re finding that that is starting to happen," Henry said. "Along the Gulf Coast we’re getting several 100-acre orchards and that makes it a meaningful industry. And we hope to expand on that with processing facilities, professional marketing, so it looks like we’re starting to get there after all these years.”