CARRIZO SPRINGS – About 5,000 miles east of Jim Henry’s orchard, Italy grows more than 90 percent of the world’s olives.
“We’re just a drop in the bucket,” Henry said, but he’s making a dent by producing Texas-made olive oil.
Henry is planning a 383-acre olive orchard with up to 300,000 trees off U.S. Highway 59 in Victoria County. If all goes well, Texas Olive Ranch is saddling up to be one of the major players in the American olive oil industry.
He thinks Victoria County has the elements for success – the right weather, the right soil and the right water availability.
“I never built this orchard thinking I would get rich,” Henry said, inspecting his Carrizo Springs press house. “I did it because I wanted to. I wasn’t too concerned about the economics.”
He plans to plant 200,000 olive trees within a year in Victoria County and another 100,000 trees the following year. He’ll move the press house and bottling facility here, build a gift shop and eventually a bed and breakfast. He even has a partnership with a farmer in Calhoun County to expand further.
A slippery business
To be labeled “extra virgin,” which Henry’s is, olive oil must have levels of pepperiness, fruitiness and bitterness and be free of 16 taste flaws.
Most of what is sold in the U.S., Henry said, is not “extra virgin” but adulterated oil.
“We’re not comparing apples to apples,” Henry said. “It’s olive oil to crap.”
Henry is one of the most vocal Texas olive oil producers calling for label regulations – with good reason, too. Cheap, adulterated oil can put legitimate oil producers out of business.
“You can’t buy extra virgin olive oil for $4.99 a bottle,” Henry said.
In a 2012 study, researchers at University of California-Davis studied 21 olive oil brands sold to restaurants and food-service operations, including 15 labeled “extra virgin,” the premium grade for olive oil, including Bertolli, Colavita, Goya, Pompeian, Filippo Berio, Star, Rachael Ray and Newman’s Own Organics.
Although all but one marketed as extra virgin passed commonly used USDA chemistry standards for quality, 60 percent of the samples failed the sensory standards for extra virgin.
In 2010, UC Davis researchers found that 69 percent of the extra virgin olive oil sold in the U.S. is adulterated or fraudulently labeled.
“You have no idea what’s in the bottle,” Henry said.
What’s listed as “pure” might be because all the healthful qualities of the oil have been removed, Henry said.
The problem isn’t new.
In 1997 and 1998, olive oil was considered the most adulterated agricultural product in the European Union, according to research by Tom Mueller, a writer for New Yorker and author of “Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil.”
It’s far more valuable than most other vegetable oils. Although it’s costly and tedious to produce, it’s easy to doctor, according to Mueller’s research.
While similar opportunities exist in the U.S. to doctor olive oil by adding color or diluting it with lower-quality oils, Henry said honesty is vital to any success.
“All they have to do is tell the truth,” he said.
For example, when someone buys a $40 bottle of wine, they don’t expect it to taste like a $3 bottle. The label accurately identifies the name and location of the vineyard, the harvest year and grape varietals. Henry argues olive oil should be held to the same standard.
“All you can do is maintain your reputation and integrity,” Henry said. “Just be fair and honest with the label. That’s all we ask.”
Made in Texas
The Texas Olive Ranch in Carrizo Springs, surrounded by scrubland, hunting leases and oil production, is a far cry from visions of ancient, twisting orchards in Greece, Italy and Spain. Alongside Texas flags and cattle pasture, 40,000 dwarfed Arbequina trees planted in tight, neat rows, produce the olives for Henry’s award-winning oil.
The morning’s work tumbles out from the harvester onto the press’ conveyor belt as Henry’s burnt-orange King Ranch pickup pulls up with “OLIVE” vanity plates.
His goal is to make the Texas industry commercially viable and a contender in the global industry. The only way to that is with a large-scale orchard.
“The demand for high quality olive oil is larger than the supply,” he said.
As the value of quality oil increases and American consumers become more conscious of real extra virgin olive oil, now is the prime time to expand Henry’s orchard. There’s a huge void to fill, and he aims to take the market.
Statewide, the crop is steadily attracting more interest. Texas has about 60 olive orchards and several others at the commercial scale.
Last summer, a Lavaca County farm earned a state award for its olive oil. Henry planted those trees.
Mark Shimek, a Port Lavaca farmer, hopes to have olives on his property soon.
“If we can get these to do what Mr. Henry says, I think it’ll be huge,” Shimek said. “He believes in it. He stuck it out. He was sincere about it.”
Shimek has grown cotton, corn, sorghum and rice. The farm was once a grass farm.
Once he gets his last cut of hay, he plans to plant about 40,000 trees this spring. Henry will help plant those, then provide the equipment to harvest and press the olives.
“I think if they were growing here, we could stop the imports and get the pure oil – where the money is,” Shimek said. “The sky’s the limit.”
They said it couldn’t be done
After several failed experiments growing olives in the 1970s and 80s, Texas A&M researchers ruled that it couldn’t be done commercially in Texas.
“People said it was impossible,” Henry said. “I was told emphatically by local universities that it was a romantic folly.”
That didn’t stop him.
He ventured into the business in the early 1990s in Marble Falls, around the time large European companies were being busted for fraud.
Henry freely admits he learned most of what he knows the hard way.
“It was the only way to get in the olive industry in Texas,” he said. “We’re supporting an industry that didn’t exist.”
He petitioned researchers for long-term studies on the crop, which they couldn’t produce. It came down to finding the right combination of tree, soil and weather.
The whole experience has been a lesson in learning what varieties to grow and where to plant them, he said.
He lost entire crops from his Marble Falls orchard in the early 1990s to weather and planning.
“Catastrophe is a little harsh, but probably accurate,” Henry said.
Although the Carrizo Springs orchard has been relatively successful, Henry said it is not commercially sustainable.
His orchard uses high-density groves, where hundreds of trees are packed into each acre and picked by over-the-row harvesters, similar to what is used in the wine industry.
He can’t produce enough, but what he does produce is the envy of foodies across the south.
“I’m not mean and angry” at A&M, Henry said. “My only revenge is to give them my olive oil.”
Since then, the state and researchers have changed their perspective.
Olives are now a “specialty crop” in Texas.
On Oct. 5, the Texas Department of Agriculture awarded more than $1.8 million in federal funding to promote and develop Texas-grown specialty crops, including olives.
South Texas wasn’t on Henry’s radar until an ag extension agent called him up in the mid-2000s about some olive trees growing behind the historical Bel-Asher House in Asherton.
A harsh winter killed his orchard in Marble Falls, but not his dream of growing olives.
“It was all just by chance,” Henry said.
The trees at Bel-Asher survived winters, summers and nearly 60 years of neglect. They thrived.
Henry knew this was the region he wanted to try and started looking for property.
Bill Millet, a San Antonio based filmmaker, has become an expert on the history of Texas olives.
Millet said olive oil and wine were at the top of Catholic religious ceremonies in early Texas along the Camino Real. It became a production crop when Canary Islanders came in with land grants, stipends from the king and olive seeds. They first planted the trees around missions.
By the 1760s, there was another big push, Millet said.
“Olives were showing up on all the inventory list of the missions,” he said.
But by the 1800s, the olives died out, and south Texas became the land of winter gardens before a depression hit.
Asher built his house in 1911. The Texas Olive Ranch is on the old Asher farm. Henry’s on-site apartment is in the same spot as Asher’s office – the highest point in Demmit County.
Millet said the olive trees were Asher’s effort to get away from mono-crops. However, the crop never took off in Texas – until now.