Olives could bloom where Florida citrus failed

The FIFTH in a Series on Brevard County Agriculture


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Mary Tracy grows olives near the Villages.

Courtesy of Florida Olive Council

The cure for Florida’s ailing citrus industry might be in a martini. No, it’s not the alcohol, but rather the olive that typically accompanies this popular libation.

Hardy, pest resistant, drought tolerant, sun loving and easy to care for, the fruit seems a no-brainer to grow. If the members of the Florida Olive Council have their wish, olives, the oldest known cultivated crop in the world, could one day happily populate the hundreds of thousands of damaged citrus groves languishing in Florida. 

“The University of Florida has been working on commercially viable alternatives to citrus, and olives are one of the crops being researched,” said Sally Scalera, the UF/IFAS extension agent in Brevard County.

Currently, California is responsible for 98 percent of the country’s olive crop. It stands to reason that if olives grow in the warmth of California, they also should thrive in the Sunshine State, right? Not quite.

Olives need to chill out, literally, and some cultivars more than others. Cultivars from California originate from Mediterranean varieties grown in 41-degree  North  latitudes with 300 annual chill hours at 32 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit. They can adapt to northern Florida and southern Georgia, where Swiss corporation Agrigrada planted a 4,000-acre olive grove just 40 miles north of Tallahassee. However, olives don’t flower or fruit much south of the I-4 corridor and its 28-degrees North climate, where chill-hour accumulation is a mere 100 to 120 hours a year.

Before COVID-19 disrupted plans, the Florida Olive Council was planning a trip to the Canary Islands and Morocco, areas at approximately 28-degrees North to study various cultivars that might provide the rootstock necessary for Central and South Florida farmers to develop a reliable cash crop. 

“There are 1,200 varieties of olives and they’ve adapted to growing anywhere from Nepal to Saudi Arabia,” said Michael O’Hara Garcia, the president of the Florida Olive Council. 

The industry, Garcia said, is still in the research stages, but the future looks promising. Hobby growers and small farmers are experiencing success in counties that include Volusia and Brevard. 

“Olives are all over the place,” Garcia said.

The United States Department of Agriculture notes that citrus production in Florida has declined by more than 75 percent in two decades, leaving orange grove owners with the alternative of selling the land for development, although they would prefer not to go that route. Perhaps, olives can save the day.

“We have to have agriculture and grow food closer to home,” Garcia said.