Jan. 6, 2011 - Jim Henry has been waiting a long time for a year like this -- when the weather was as close to perfect as can be expected, and olives were harvested from his 40,000 trees by the ton. It was what he dreamed of when he started planting olive trees in Texas in the early 1990s, and was told by nearly everyone he asked that he was dreaming the impossible dream.
The dream started out as an observation, then a notion, and eventually evolved into the Texas Olive Oil Ranch in Carrizo Springs, the Texas Olive Oil Council and a potential new crop for producers in parts of Texas where the weather can usually be trusted to cooperate. Henry estimates that he harvested about three tons of olives this year, by far the most he has ever produced. It turned out to be "one of those years," -- but in a good way.
"The previous two years were less than perfect, but this year we had spectacular weather and about the right amount of rain," Henry said. "It was really a once-in-a-lifetime harvest."
The harvest began in September amid a certain amount of fanfare. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Texas Olive Oil Council conducted a seminar on Sept. 14 and 15 that featured an appearance by state Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples. There was no fanfare in 1994, when Henry planted his first olive trees in Texas, nor was there little support from agriculture Extension agents and research scientists.
Henry, a successful Dallas businessman, had spent a fair amount of time in Spain and Europe during his career and wondered why he didn't see any olive trees in his native Texas. When he asked he was told it was because they wouldn't grow here.
"I was young and nave," he said. "It didn't make sense to me. I had all these so-called experts telling me it couldn't be done, but there wasn't any research to back that up. I don't know why they would tell you something like based on opinion and translate it as a fact. I looked into it a little more, and decided to give it a try."
Henry planted his first trees near Marble Falls, but that planting did not go well. The problem turned out to be the wrong varieties in the wrong climate -- a freeze wiped out his young trees before they could get started. His experiments began to click when he bought land near Carrizo Springs and planted Spanish and Greek varieties instead of Italian. The young trees survived the relatively mild winters of the Middle Rio Grande Valley and the varieties he chose, primarily the Arbequina along with some Aubosana and Koroneiki, turned out to be well-suited to the area's soils and climate.
"There's no conspiracy, no secret to it," Henry said. "It's the right variety in the right climate. That's all it is."
For the person contemplating growing olives for the first time, there is a lot more to it than that, which Henry knows after having first traveled the olive trails alone. He founded the Texas Olive Oil Council to promote the industry and encourage research and a base of information for others who want to plant olives. He spends a fair amount of his time these days not only encouraging other growers, but often selling them the trees and planting them, if they prefer.
Several other olive operations have started in recent years, including Farrell's Olive Ranch in Cotula; Conly's Olive Orchard in Asherton; Bella Vista Ranch in Wimberley; and Anderson Olive Orchard in Dilley. Most of those are located south of Johnson City and Marble Falls. The Central Texas Olive Ranch, in Walburg, is the northernmost of the new olive groves, and it faced a tremendous challenge last winter when temperatures hovered near double digits two nights in a row.
"We were told that the one thing that could knock us out would be a period of extended freezing weather, where the temperature was in the teens or single digits for several hours," co-owner Josh Swafford said. "That's exactly what happened, but we made it. We lit fire and had big fans blow the smoke over the trees, which protected them a little bit. We ended up losing a few trees, maybe four or five percent, but the others came through just fine."
"I was worried about them when I heard how cold it was getting in Walburg," Henry said. "I was afraid to call them because to be honest I sort of expected the worst. The one thing you can't control is the weather, and they knew that going in. I don't know if people realize just how remarkable it is that they were able to save those trees. Once they mature, they won't be so susceptible to freezes, but young trees are very vulnerable."
Swafford and his grandfather, Curtis Mickan, benefitted greatly from Henry's experience because they too were told that olives wouldn't grow in Texas, especially that far north in Central Texas. Henry said that he hopes future producers will have a place to get reliable, researched information about olives in Texas. The Texas Department of Agriculture and the Texas Olive Oil Council have joined forces to fund a Texas Tech University research program on the value and management of olives in Texas.
Henry's olives go straight from the field to an olive press that extracts the oil. He sells extra virgin olive oil and points with pride to a study by Agriculture Research Service scientists at Weslaco that tested Texas extra virgin oil against imported commercial varieties. The study concluded that oil from the Texas Olive Ranch was of higher quality than oils from California, Italy, Spain, Greece, Argentina and Tunisia. His oil graded out as "extra virgin" where some of the other oils which are sold as extra virgin olive oil, did not.
The grade -- extra virgin olive oil -- is important to him and important to consumers, as it is considered the purest and highest quality oil available and sells for a premium. Henry contends that half of the olive oils sold in groceries as extra virgin aren't and he hopes that a recent labeling law passed by Congress will help consumers make more informed choices.
"It's like with wine," Henry said. "If you buy a $4.99 bottle of red table wine at the store and you look at its ingredients, it will be about what you expect. If you buy a bottle of $40 Merlot, the label is going to show it's 90 percent Merlot and 10 percent Cabernet and it was bottled in 2007 in Napa Valley.
"Without any kind of labeling law, you can get olive oil from the Mediterranean that's being blended with who knows what and sold as extra virgin. There's no way for the consumers to really know what they're buying."
Domestic olive oil is a new concept not just in Texas, but in this country. Americans buy about 500 million gallons of olive oil a year but only one percent of that olive oil comes from America, and most of that one percent is grown in California.
Now that he and other olive pioneers are showing that olives are can be grown in Texas, Henry expects the market to boom and he also expects a flood of foreign investors and growers in coming years who are likely to buy land in Texas, rather than California, because land is cheaper and the state economy is in better shape.
The Texas Department of Agriculture puts the number of olive trees in the state at about 850,000, but Henry knows that number will grow because he's planting 140,000 trees for Hansen's Olive Ranch near La Pryor. He expects to have that planting completed by the end of March. He's also planting some orchards in Mexico, and a growing number of Texans are contacting him about buying trees.
"As an industry, I think you can expect to see two million trees here before too much longer," he said. "I think you're going to see the Spaniards coming into Texas and bringing major international corporations to Texas, just because the price is going to be so much better in Texas than in California. We have water, minerals and our state's not broke."
Henry's success and the growing number of people who are planting olives in Texas has attracted the attention of film makers. The documentary "Texas Olive Trails" is scheduled for showing on PBS stations around the country in March.
"There's a lot of interest in olives now," Henry said. "You're going to see more commercial olive operations in coming years; I'm sure of it. People say it's too risky and it is a gamble, but agriculture is always a gamble. In the end, it nearly always comes down to the weather."