As disease takes toll on citrus, more Florida farmers turning to olives


Michael O'Hara Garcia, president of the Florida Olive Council, has been researching the growth habits of a variety of olive trees in his yard in Gainesville, Fla. in an effort to specify which species grow best in Florida, shown Tuesday, October 8, 2013.

Erica Brough/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Tuesday, October 8, 2013 at 3:58 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, October 8, 2013 at 3:58 p.m.

Michael O'Hara Garcia doesn't have an exact reason the olive industry is starting to spring up in Florida.

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Michael O'Hara Garcia, president of the Florida Olive Council, has been researching the growth habits of a variety of olive trees in his yard in Gainesville, Fla. in an effort to specify which species grow best in Florida, shown Tuesday, October 8, 2013.

Erica Brough/The Gainesville Sun

“That's a really good question,” the president of the Florida Olive Council said. But, he added, it might have to do with the economic necessity created by HLB disease — or citrus greening disease.

For the past eight years, HLB disease has wreaked havoc to the tune of billions of dollars in financial loss on the Sunshine State's citrus market.

Garcia said that in that time, Florida farming has taken an interest in olives.

Soil, climate and other conditions make areas suitable for citrus growth also accommodating for olives.

“Basically anywhere you grow citrus trees, you can grow olive trees,” he said.

The crop traditionally has come from outside the U.S., with an estimated 98 percent import rate accounting for the 85 million gallons of olive oil consumed in the country last year.

Demand for olive products is up as Americans recognize the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet, with olive oil consumption up 7 percent last year. That has opened opportunities for larger commercial operations, Garcia said.

He said he doesn't know exactly how many commercial growers there are across the state, but the amount stands at less than a dozen, with approximately 200 acres planted.

More common are people who might have a few trees, hand pick their olives and sell at farmer's markets and over the Internet. Garcia lives in Gainesville and is a backyard grower himself.

The Florida Olive Council is in a five-year project with the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences to research best practices for growing olive trees.

The project includes test plots in Citra, Ocala and Live Oak, as well as on the land of private growers. The council is seeking more growing partners, and those interested can contact Garcia at Michael@FloridaOliveCouncil.org.

Business Editor Anthony Clark contributed to this report.

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