Aug. 27, 2009 - Despite criticism from skeptics, Curtis Mickan and his grandson Josh Swafford believe olives can be grown in certain parts of Texas. They have staked a lot of time and money in that belief by starting the Central Texas Olive Ranch outside of Walburg.
Working shoulder-to-shoulder and virtually around the clock since the first of the year, grandfather and grandson have planted 23,000 trees on 33 acres and have installed a drip irrigation system. That followed ripping up the ground, hauling away massive amounts of rock and tilling the soil to give it the porous texture that olive trees like.
Swafford and Mickan, along with Swafford's parents, Danny and Mindy, Mickan's wife, other family members and two hired hands have contributed to the project, including the actual planting of the trees.
Swafford, who began investigating the possibility of growing olives on the old home place when he was a senior at Texas A&M University, said he first had soil tests conducted to determine if the land was suited to olive tree survival.
"We had six different tests done," he said. "What we have here is mostly sandy, clay loam, which is good for what we want to do."
Mickan said it's been 65 years since it fell below 10 degrees in Central Texas, which is around the point where olive trees can be killed by the cold. Much of Texas, and the country, is either too cold, not cold enough or the soil isn't right, he said. Mickan and Swafford believe that they are in a pocket of the state where conditions generally are conducive to growing olives.
Swafford is the sixth generation to work the land where the Central Texas Olive Ranch is taking root. Mickan's great-grandfather settled the land in the late 1850s, and subsequent generations have grown cotton, corn and other crops with moderate success.
"When Josh asked me about growing olives on this place, I was willing to look into it because I thought there had to be something better out there than the crops we've always grown," said Mickan. "I think the olive situation here is one that a lot of people around here will be able to get involved with. People can grow olives in little five- and 10-acre pockets, if they want to."
Eighty percent of the olive ranch's first crop will be Arbequina olives, with the remainder split between Arbasana and Koroneiki. Swafford said he expects to have a partial harvest in the fall of 2011. Future plans include an office and an onsite oil press to grind the olives into extra pure virgin olive oil.
"Ninety-nine percent of the olive oil we use in this country comes from Spain and Greece," Mickan said. "We need to produce more olives in this country. The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has tightened restrictions on imports, but there's still going to be a demand for olive oil in the country.
"As it turns out, the three best locations in America for growing olives are in Northern California, an area northwest of Phoenix and a small pocket here in Central Texas. A lot of people still say you can't grow olives in Central Texas, but that's what they said about grapes and the wine industry not that long ago."
The Central Texas Olive Ranch is patterned partly after the Texas Olive Ranch in Carizzo Springs, which is co-owned and operated by Jim Henry, who has 40,000 trees at his place. Henry founded the Texas Olive Oil Council in 1994, to promote interest in olive oil cultivation and research to support olive farmers in Texas. Other orchards are scattered around the state.
Getting the trees planted has been a laborious process and plenty of work remains until the planting can be considered truly finished, but Swafford said the 16-hours days will be fewer and further between as the operation gets up and running.
"There will still be a lot of work to do," Swafford said. "You have to trim the trees every year because the olives just grow on fresh (plant) growth. You have to put in the time, but it's going to be worth it."