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DeLeon Springs olive experiment is working
By Pat Andrews
posted Jun 3, 2014 - 9:33:52am
An olive orchard planted in Volusia County less than two years ago is thriving.
In October 2012, The Beacon reported on the 20-acre experiment in DeLeon Springs.
The 11,100 olive shoots Richard Williams planted in July 2012 have produced their first olives in only two years, instead of the anticipated three or four.
Williams is overjoyed.
Seeing those first fruits appear gave Williams a rush of joy, he said. He had been hopeful, but uncertain that the grove would succeed. Before him, no one had planted more than a few olive trees in Volusia County.
Florida's climate is largely like that of the Mediterranean basin, which is famous for olives, but Florida is on the south end of the latitude spectrum where olives flourish. Olives like cooler afternoons in the winter, Williams said, and it has been a question of how far south in the U.S. olive trees would thrive. Successful groves exist in Georgia, Texas and California.
With West Volusia's citrus groves decimated by freezes, pests and citrus-greening disease, Williams knew finding a viable replacement or supplemental crop was essential.
A proponent of healthful foods and lifestyle, Williams is also a proponent of the health benefits of olive oil and leaves. (Read more about that in the accompanying article.)
So, with the backing of his wife, Lisa Ford Williams, and her family, including brother and sister-in-law Alex and Vincetta Ford, Williams planted the grove on Ford-family property off Spring Garden Ranch Road.
"They're really behind this," Richard Williams said. He’s grateful for the support.
Olives are a good match for this area, he said. They are aquifer-friendly, requiring only a fraction of the water needed by citrus or ferns, West Volusia's traditional cash crops. Two 4-inch wells on the DeLeon Springs grove water the full 20 acres. A 4-inch well typically supplies one house, he said. The grove uses 558 gallons per acre per hour of water when irrigation is taking place, versus 2,000 to 3,000 gallons per hour often used in ferneries or citrus groves.
Williams uses a drip system, instead of spray, to target the trees and encourage them to put down deep roots.
Citrus groves also use irrigation during freezes to protect the trees with an ice coating. In the olive grove, however, even during the coldest nights of the past winter, when temperatures dropped as low as 24 degrees for four or five hours — a hard freeze — no water was used.
"There were no major issues," Williams said. A few trees required some pruning, but the trees just grew back stronger and thicker. "So far, it's been an amazingly tough tree."
"That's how these trees live for 4,000 years," he said.
His trees are raised mostly organically, Williams said. He does apply a bit of fertilizer, and occasionally uses herbicides on weeds. He hasn't used any pesticides on the trees themselves, and insects have left the trees alone. Bugs don't like the bitter taste of the leaves, Williams said.
Olive trees may be a near-miraculous replacement crop, he said. They're cold-resistant, they need little water, and they thrive in conditions that would stunt other crops.
"Survivalists extraordinaire," he said.
Williams applies modern technology to raise the ancient crop. A sensor system measures moisture at a couple of levels in the soil as well as in the air, so just enough water is applied. Dr. Terrence Fullerton of Agro Services International in Orange City monitors nutrient levels in the soil at Florida Olive Systems.
Williams is growing the trees in rows, in a manner that will encourage the trees to form rows of hedges. This will allow mechanical harvesters to travel the rows. Traditionally, olives are hand-gathered, which is tedious, time-intensive and expensive.
The olive grove has attracted attention at the state level. Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Florida Farm Bureau President John Hoblick visited early this year. As a result, 16 teachers from the Agriscience Education Leadership Program spent a day learning at the grove in February, when the temperature reached a high of only 42 degrees.
With olives on the trees, is an olive mill or press in the works? Williams is still waiting to see whether making his own oil would be cost-effective. In the meantime, growers in Georgia offer their mills for use.
For more information, visit Florida Olive Systems online at www.floridaolivesystems. com.
Read about the health benefits of olives and olive leaves in the June 2-4 Midweek edition of The Beacon. To subscribe to The Beacon online, click here. For a list of newsstand locations, click here. To have the print edition mailed to your home twice a week, send your address via email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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