Writer: Kathleen Phillips, 979-845-2872, firstname.lastname@example.org
Contact: Monte Nesbitt, 979-862-1218, MLNesbitt@tamu.edu
COLLEGE STATION — Brittle limbs, dropped leaves and dead trees are the telltale marks of three days in January when much of the Texas olive producing area experienced temperatures as low as 12 degrees.
It’s a setback for the state’s fledgling olive oil industry, according to Monte Nesbitt, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service horticulturist, College Station. But the good news is that olive trees often recover.
“The freeze Jan. 6-8 was broad across the southern part of the state, with temperatures ranging from about 12 to 19 degrees,” Nesbitt said. “It covered a large area, and for olives it was fairly damaging.”
Plantings of olive trees have been increasing in recent years from about 800 documented in 2014 to what Nesbitt called the best estimate now at 4,500 acres.
Some of those acres now are showing the damage, which might have been more severe because it came on the heels of an otherwise warm winter, he said. And the end result of the freeze damage is a lack of fruit, or olive, production.
“One of the problems is we don’t get consistent weather in Texas,” Nesbitt added. “We get intermittent cold weather mixed with the warm. The trees go through an acclimation, deacclimation process, which isn’t good for them.
“That has been the history of olive growing in Texas. We have unpredictable severe weather. So a lot of the smaller trees were frozen to the ground, and the larger trees suffered a lot of leaf loss. Trees are either dead or alive but not fruiting.”
But there is some good news in the resiliency of olive trees that can keep the industry alive, Nesbitt said.
“When an olive tree freezes to the ground, our soil temperatures are warm enough that the roots aren’t killed, so the tree will start over,” he said. “We have some trees in the area that were planted in the 1970s and have frozen back to the ground many times. You can lose a couple of years growth, but they will regrow.”
In optimal growing conditions, an olive orchard will yield some fruit in the second year and should get substantial production by the fourth year, he noted.
That said, growers and the newly formed Texas Association of Olive Oil are trying to determine a model for what olive production should be in Texas.
“The freeze in January affected most growers in the state in some form or fashion. When playing against Mother Nature, all we can do is try to take the necessary steps to ensure that we bring our trees back around and producing,” said Michael Paz, general manager of Texana Henrichson Ranch, a 136-acre olive orchard located in LaSalle County, and president of the olive oil association.
“Texas olive growers are demonstrating their commitment to growth through an expansion of their infrastructure,” Paz added. “We witnessed a record number of olive orchards reaching harvest in 2016. Olive orchards now represent the fifth highest acreage fruit crop in the state.”
Nesbitt said horticulturists who watch the fruit industry believe the olive tree acreage “is about to catch up if not surpass peach acres in Texas.”
Olive oil is known for its nutritional value and “on paper” is a high-dollar crop.
“But olives don’t just jump into a bottle and turn to oil,” Nesbitt said. “There is milling and bottling that has to be done with fairly sophisticated equipment.”
Growers will know more about the crop outcome as harvest time approaches in the fall, he said.