Texas Olive Ranch
Recipient of 2007 USDA Value Added Producer grant.
More than a decade after planting his first trees, Jim Henry finally harvested a crop from his 60-acre olive orchard and manufactured the first and only Texas-made olive oil, all of which was sold before it was ever bottled.
“Our oil is in great demand,” said Henry, owner of Texas Olive Ranch. “It’s really kind of cool because in most farming operations, the hardest thing you have is to sell your product. In our case, I could sell 50 times more than I actually have. We’re very lucky.”
But it hasn’t always been smooth sailing, and Henry said there were several false starts before Texas Olive Ranch even planted an orchard that was able to sustain itself in Texas’ climate.
He had traveled extensively and found the Texas climate to be very similar to that of European countries that produced olives as a cash crop. It became a source of curiosity, and “I couldn’t get anybody to legitimately tell me why it couldn’t be done,” he said.
“Everybody thought I was crazy. Nobody listened to me.”
Henry, founding director of the Texas Olive Oil Council, has become a trailblazer for olive growers in a state in which there was no prior research that pertained to growing the crop. Twenty years ago, he had struggled with the same absence of research pertaining to grape growing.
“Back then I kind of gave up,” he said. “I didn’t pursue it.
When it came to olives, he picked up research related to the European and California olive industries and tried as best he could to apply the pertinent information to the part of Texas he had identified for his orchard.
Henry planted 10 acres of olive trees in 1993. But as time passed, it became evident that the orchard was too far north. Everything froze, and they lost the trees. He moved south and planted 20 acres of trees on land that belonged to a friend. He experimented with several different trees to determine which worked best. When he was ready to plant an orchard with a high-density method using a particular type of tree, he didn’t want to use someone else’s land. He secured financing from several investors and purchased his own land. His 67-acre ranch is now home to 40,000 olive trees.
“It was kind of like trial and error, and perhaps a little bit of stubbornness and a little bit of curiosity,” he said. “We tried a lot of things and it didn’t work. And ultimately we got to the point where it did work.” There was no secret to his ultimate solution, he added, but rather putting the right tree in the right climate.
Texas Olive Ranch purchased an olive press, simply because there wasn’t another press in Texas capable of handling the volume of olives that Henry and his partners anticipated.
A $300,000 USDA Value Added Producer Grant, awarded in 2007, helped the company purchase bottles, bottling equipment and produce better product labels. In all, Henry said it enhanced the company’s marketing efforts by adding an air of professionalism to it.
Henry and his partners were in shock at news of the grant, realizing they would have accumulated even more debt to complete those projects. They viewed the grant not as a windfall, but as a tool that allowed them to take the company to the next level.
“It probably put me two or three years ahead of where I’d have been without it,” he said.
While many producers struggle with distribution, there was suddenly a list of retailers waiting for Texas Olive Ranch’s first product. Each wanted to stake their claim as the first retailer of the only Texas-made olive oil.
The pushing and shoving to get to the front of the line comes in rather stark contrast to retailers’ skepticism in the past.
“Nobody had a great deal of confidence that we would ever have enough to sell,” Henry said. “And then when we did do it, it almost became first come, first serve, because we weren’t going to have enough oil to sell to everybody.” A major retailer committed to buying Texas Olive Ranch olive oil for as long as the company can make it.
Henry took a great deal of satisfaction in harvesting a bumper crop from his 40,000 olive trees in 2007. But it had nothing to do with a desire to say, “I told you so,” to his doubters. Instead, he said, it was a personal triumph after years of setbacks and hard work.
“40,000 trees take a lot of time and a lot of babying and a lot of care,” he said. Henry lives in Dallas, 425 miles away from his orchard in Carrizo Springs. It was more important to find a location that was ideal for growing olive trees. His attempts at growing trees closer to his home failed due to the climate.
There were numerous problems such as water shortages and disease that Texas Olive Ranch had to face over the years. Henry and his partners were able to combat those problems, often with the aid of plant scientists.
“People in the future will have a much easier path if they listen or if they bother to ask,” he said. “If they don’t, then they’ll probably make the same mistakes we did.”
Texas Olive Ranch is in the process of a dramatic expansion of its operation. It has purchased land and contracted for nursery stock to plant an additional 100,000 olive trees in early 2009. The orchards will be separated by less than half a mile, simply for the purposes of sharing equipment.
They also plan to expand the product line by adding flavored olive oils and infused olive oils, as well as avocado and pecan oils and an olive marinade for beef, chicken and fish.
Several parties have already expressed interest in investing, which has led Henry and his partners to consider the possibility of selling investment packages in order to plant an additional 100,000 trees.
“It kind of started pandemonium, if you will,” Henry said. “And that part of Texas really needed a crop that’s a high cash crop or something that will benefit those counties.”
Despite being more than 400 miles from his farming operation, Henry makes the trip to Carrizo Springs at least every other week if not every week. During the harvest and planting seasons, he’s there for weeks at a time, though a farm manager has overseen day-to-day operations for 10 years.
“I couldn’t escape it if I wanted to,” he said.
About USDA VAPG
VAPG funding has been offered by the USDA periodically since the early 2000s. A new round of funding is anticipated to be announced in the coming months. To be considered value added, projects must show how products are differentiated in specific ways from commodity crops. Typically, projects must also show how they may deliver greater returns to producers.
Independent producers, farmer or rancher cooperatives, agricultural producer groups, and producer-owned business ventures, including non-profit organizations, may apply. In previous cycles, applicants were required to be producers of the raw commodity who will maintain ownership of that commodity through the process of creating a value-added product. Grants have been available for planning projects (such as marketing and business plans and feasibility studies) and working capital projects (which might include wages or packaging supplies). (http://www.rd.usda.gov/)