Texas: The Great State of Olives

You might not give it much thought, but what you eat locally has as much to do with tradition and culture as climate and growing conditions. Olives in Texas? They grow here, but it took someone who was willing to go out on a limb to bring them to market in Texas. Jim Henry wanted to grow grapes, but heard nothing but tales of how difficult an undertaking it would be. Why not olives, then? There weren’t people growing them on a large scale in Texas, but that didn’t mean it couldn’t be done. Jim settled on his life's work fter planting several experimental olive orchards from Marble Falls southward, and trying out different varieties of olives. In 2004, he selected Carrizo Springs, Texas, as the place to plant a high-density commercial olive orchard and brought in his first commercial olive crop in 2007. Soon after, he met Karen Lee, whose background in specialty foods marketing and olive oil in particular was a perfect match for the future of Texas olives. We caught up with them last week to hear about their pioneering mission to bring high-quality olive oil to our community.

Why raise food?

Olives have a rich and timeless history that connects us to the whole of human civilization.

How did your previous life experience or influences prepare you to raise food for a living?

In my opinion, nothing really prepares you for being a farmer--every day is a new experience.

What does “sustainable” mean to you?

Properly managed, an olive orchard can flourish and produce olives for generations, for centuries. We are starting something that will be a legacy for our children and grandchildren, and their children and beyond. We manage what goes into our soil, our water, and into our trees to ensure that our fruit will have the same natural characteristics and qualities in the decades to come as it does today.

What does a “day in the life” look like at Texas Olive Ranch?

With 40,000 olive trees, there is always something that needs attention, whether it's pruning the hardwood, trimming the base of the tree, managing the drip irrigation system, repairing equipment, or visiting with guests. At the end of the day, we love to enjoy the cool southeast breeze from our porch rockers with a cold drink.

What is special or different about the food you raise?

Texas Olive Ranch is the largest operating olive orchard in Texas, but it wouldn't be considered big by world standards. We are still a small family farm, but we are pioneering what we hope will become a robust specialty crop industry for Texas. Olives and olive oil are such great components of the human diet, with antioxidants and polyphenols that essentially help keep users young and healthy and good looking. We love it.

What would we be surprised to learn is part of your “job description”?

Everybody in our organization is a multi-tasker, and we all pitch in to do whatever needs to be done, from sweeping the floor to harvesting the crop to working product demos and farmers’ markets.

What do you find most rewarding about farming?

It's kind of elemental--you work with natural elements, earth, wind, water, even fire, to make food. It's cool.

What do you find most challenging?

The US has no current regulation for labeling olive oil quality, which leads to mislabeling and fraudulent claims by unscrupulous importers and bottlers. US growers are struggling to get our federal government to be aware of domestic olive oil production, and maybe at some point soon they will recognize that there IS a US industry and put some limits on fraudulent labeling practices.

What do you feel is the biggest obstacle faced today by folks who want to raise food sustainably for a living?

American consumers are often conditioned to buy cheap food, and we find ourselves constantly telling the story of what we do and why cheap isn't always a good thing.

What is a farmer’s role in our society?

The role of farmers today is the same as it has been for hundreds of years, but our society has become so dependent of cheap imported food that people have virtually forgotten that food comes from farmers and ranchers. The convenience of a grocery story obscures the work and the life behind our food supply. American farmers continue to provide domestic local food sources, which, when you think about it, is a pretty important function.

Why should we shop at the farmers’ market?

To be in touch with where your food comes from, to keep it real, to know what's in it, and to stay connected to your own food chain.

What is the best news in food you’ve heard recently?

The US International Trade Commission report on olive oil recently detailed a year-long study on the American olive oil industry and is improving awareness among our lawmakers and increasing interest in labeling standards. This will be a very good development for American consumers to require truth and accuracy in olive oil labeling.

What do you wish more people knew about growing food?

Well, it's not rocket science, but it's a lot more complicated than a lot of people think. Just because you put a plant in the ground doesn't mean you're going to get a crop--it takes a lot of management and timing and paying attention.

What inspires you?

Happy customers, customers who have discovered that fresh extra virgin olive oil is so much better than what they buy in grocery stores. We're going to keep on doing this!

What is one thing everyone can do to create a better, stronger food system?

Buy local.

What are you cooking this week?

Farro with roasted peppers, potatoes and carrots, Kitchen Pride mushroom soup, and kale with onions.

What’s your favorite farm-raised recipe or dish?

Pinto beans drained and tossed with chopped fresh tomatoes, cilantro, fresh squeezed lemon and lots of delicious Texas Olive Ranch mesquite olive oil!

Quick Picks

Favorite breakfast: homemade granola with orange-infused olive oil and yogurt.

Favorite comfort food: Nopal tortilla chips and home made salsa cruda.

Favorite book about food: Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil by Tom Mueller.

Favorite cookbook: I am holding out for one by Quincy Adams-Erickson!

Favorite in-season fruit/veggie: Beets.

Favorite food indulgence: Oysters.