Clear Creek Olive Company stands in the vanguard of olive production in the state
by Jennifer Greenhill-Taylor
Gentle hills covered with rows of silver-leaved olive trees fill the view from the balcony above the olive mill. The bucolic scene could be in Italy, or Spain or California.
Spreading live oaks draped with Spanish moss make it clear that this is Florida, more famous for oranges than olives. But there they stand, thousands of young olive trees soaking up the Florida sun, feasting on the rich, well-drained, high-ridge land outside Ocala, and growing ever nearer to producing enough fruit for oil.
The owners and workers at Clear Creek Olive Company are in the vanguard of forward-thinking farmers and researchers determined to turn olives into Florida’s newest commercial crop.
Three fairly recent developments inspired this movement: tests conducted at the University of California, Davis, proved that many foreign extra virgin olive oils were fraudulently labeled; worldwide olive oil supplies are dropping due to weather and disease, and Florida’s traditional grove crop, oranges, is being killed by a devastating citrus disease. This convergence could result in Florida olive oil joining California and European oils on your grocery shelves, and olives joining oranges as an important cash crop.
But it won’t be tomorrow.
At present, Florida has about 50 olive growers who maintain about 500 to 600 acres of trees, mostly in the northern part of the state, according to Michael O’Hara Garcia of the Florida Olive Council. Most of them are small, experimental plantings, as it’s not a sure thing that olives can thrive as a commercial crop in Florida. The trees, mostly grown in the Mediterranean area and California, need a certain amount of cold weather to flower and set fruit, Garcia said, and for now that’s not going to happen below a line that roughly parallels Interstate 4. But it could in the future, as the University of Florida, the Florida Olive Council and other researchers are collecting data from growers around the state to help find a variety that will produce with fewer “chill” hours. They’ve even gone as far afield as North Africa, seeking varieties that thrive despite long hours of heat.
The challenges to commercially growing olives in Florida are clear, said Dan Flynn of UC Davis, who consulted with the Clear Creek team, along with researchers from the University of Florida. “Olives don’t like a lot of rain,” he said. “They need a certain amount of cold weather, they don’t like heat when they are setting flowers and fruit, and are susceptible to fungus diseases such as olive knot.”
But these challenges can be overcome, and the folks at Clear Creek are well positioned, geographically, financially and intellectually, to face them.
Clear Creek Farm was established in 1998 by Bill and Kay Dennis as a place to breed Thoroughbred horses. Bill, an international businessman with interests in continuing education, and Kay, a long-time Thoroughbred horse breeder, joined dozens of world-class horse breeders attracted to the attributes of this high spine of Florida—good soil, lush grass, gentle climate. In 2000, they expanded to include Wagyu cattle, using Bill’s business background and Kay’s breeding experience. They spent three years studying the history, genetics and viability of Wagyu beef as a product, and developed a philosophy: to produce healthy and tasty meat with a sustainable and transparent approach. This philosophy and rigor extended to their next venture, in 2012, when they took on something completely different.
Inspired by the success of a pair of fruiting olive trees planted as landscaping on the farm decades before, Bill and his team, that now includes his son Will and daughter-in-law Megan, began the move to diversify even more. Researchers tested the soil, so perfect for the Wagyu beef herd, to see if it was suitable for a commercial olive farm. It was. Spectacularly so, as the makeup of the soil was key to the production of similar oleic acids in both the Wagyu beef and in olives.
And thus Clear Creek Olive Company was born. About 10,000 trees have been planted in the past five years, and are thriving in the rich soil. The farm’s owners expect to see a substantial crop within about two years. Until then, the farm is turning olives from California and Peru into golden oil, using a state-of-the-art Pieralisi olive mill from Italy. Not only does it produce a clear, pure oil, it turns the waste into a “pâté,” ideal for various uses, including cattle feed. The mill is open to the public, so area olive farmers will have access to a certified organic milling service that can process three-quarters of a ton per hour.
Olives, which have been cultivated for fruit and oil in the Mediterranean for millennia, are not new to Florida. Some say the Spanish introduced them in the 16th century. Other records tell of a grove in Volusia County in the 18th century. But oranges, not olives, ruled Florida agriculture for centuries. However, trouble hit the crop in the past few decades, after massive freezes and citrus greening killed thousands of trees. “Despite spending $250 million in the past decade researching a cure for this debilitating disease, Florida has found no economically viable solution” Garcia said.
So he and other agricultural experts around the state are turning to diversity as a possible way to offset the losses in the state’s agricultural income. The new gold standard could be a “low-chill olive” that will reliably produce in the state’s warmer areas. Clear Creek Olive Company’s owners could be among the 21st-century oil barons profiting from their brave investments in a different crop of “Florida Gold.”