by Laura Reiley*

DE LEON SPRINGS — In the little shed, he removes the twist-tie on a Publix baguette. I rip off a hunk and dip it in a plastic ramekin of emerald green liquid. Fruity and rich, it has a sharp pepperiness on the finish.

It is Florida olive oil. And it's good.

They said it couldn't be done. They said the climate wasn't right: too much humidity, not enough chill hours. There are bound to be pests; it's too rainy and olives don't like too much water.

Despite all the naysayers, a number of growers are experimenting with olives around the state, working with University of Florida agriculture professors and entomologists to find out exactly which varieties, planted exactly where and harvested exactly when. The aim?Create Florida's next big-money crop in an era where our famous citrus industry is struggling.

It comes at a good time.

Spain's olive farmers have been battling drought and Italian olives are succumbing to a bacterial outbreak. Meanwhile, the olive oil market is growing worldwide, exponentially in places with an exploding middle class like China or India.

Americans consume 80 million gallons of olive oil, says Michael O'Hara Garcia, president of the Florida Olive Council. And Americans produce less than 2 percent of that, almost all in California.

It will take seven years or so to know what is feasible in Florida, and where. But, says Garcia, everyone else harvests olives in November and in Florida they can be harvested in August. As with our early-harvest blueberries, this could be good news.

"We have a latitudinal advantage," he says.

• • •

Richard Williams, broad chest and long limbs of an athlete, deep ruddiness of a farmer, stands in the rows of eight-foot-tall trees.

Arbequina yields highly aromatic, small fruit. Arbosana oil has a distinctive nutty fruitiness. The Greek Koroneiki has had some success grown in Texas.

He's growing these and 12 other varieties on 25 acres of a 40 acre tract that belongs to his wife's family and used to grow pine for lumber. From his young 11,160 trees planted in 2012, this year he pressed only 60 gallons of oil,enough to fill a living room fish tank.

But it's a start.

"Olives are not just Mediterranean," he says. "They are grown on six continents. When you get into all the variables, Florida has 90 percent of what we need."

If they can be grown successfully, Williams says, olives have many merits: They require very little additional water beyond what nature provides (by comparison, it requires nearly 5 gallons of irrigation to produce one walnut). They require little maintenance other than some front-end pruning, and at this time have very limited pesticide needs.

According to Garcia, olives aren't entirely new in Florida. Don Mueller, the "godfather" of Florida olive growers, has had a grove near Marianna for 15 years. But for the most part, olives have been the pursuit of hobbyists. As a profession, it's risky.

"In one fell swoop," says Williams, who also sells olive trees and consults for other grove owners, "you can get your teeth knocked in by one ugly pest or a hurricane."

Look at his acreage and you'll see a wide swath of browned trees where water pooled after 30 inches of rain in three months. At Jonathan and Stephen Carter's groves in Suwannee County, where they aim to get 150 tons of olives on their 33 acres of mostly Arbequinas, this season's harvest was disappointing.

In anticipation of pressing their own oil, they imported an olive mill from Italy last year — which is where Williams pressed his 60 gallons of fruity extra virgin oil. But at the end of the day, he says, "we just don't know if we'll get enough fruit for an oil industry."

That's where the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences comes in. Garcia says there are research plots all over the state: A couple rows of high-density trees in Citra, more in Quincy, Jay, Ocala and Live Oak, as well as ten different varieties planted at Mosaic's headquarters in Bowling Green.

Beyond where they can be grown, it must be determined which varieties work best with our limited chill hours (Tuscany has 800, Florida has 300), but also whether they should be planted in high-density rows that can be mechanically harvested overhead, traditionally trellised or in some other Florida-appropriate configuration.

Early signs look promising. UF/IFAS professor Jennifer Gillett-Kaufman, who has written extensively on olive pest management, and UF/IFAS dean for research, Jackie Burns, will meet with state legislators on Veterans Day to speak about olives and their potential impact in Florida.

• • •

It's doubtful this new "liquid gold" will replace the beleaguered citrus industry, wobbly from Asian Citrus Psyllid, Huanglongbing Disease and changing consumer tastes.

But as Floridians become more discerning about the provenance of their food, local olive oil makes sense, especially in light of recent scandals.

Picture it: In 2008, 400 Italian police officers swooped in to confiscate 85 farms and arrest 23 people in "Operation Golden Oil." The crime? Cheap oil was being brought in from elsewhere in the Mediterranean and relabeled as Italian.

In recent years major shippers have been caught routinely adulterating olive oil, and frequently what is labeled as "extra virgin" is not virginal nor even olive oil at all.

Williams, also a proponent of the health benefits of olive leaf extract, is waiting to see if the hardy trees can be "stressed" enough to densely produce fruit.

"If I had a dollar for every time I said, 'I dunno,'" he mused in the grove, right around the time I stood on some angry fire ants.

He gave me a smear of olive leaf extract to dab on the bites, because he believes olives could be the cure for everything.

* Laura Reiley is a food critic

source: "Tampa Bay Times"