SFSC has partnered with the Hardee County Industrial Development Authority (IDA) to secure a $150,102 United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Specialty Crop grant to research and grow olive trees.

Beginning Jan. 1, 2018, the “From Orange Juice to Olive Oil” project will bring olive trees from Tunisia and additional low-chill varieties from other regions to Florida’s Heartland, where climate and soil composition present a great potential for growth.

“We are thrilled to receive our newest grant from the USDA to research and grow olive trees in Hardee County,” said Dr. Thomas C. Leitzel, president of SFSC. “With the introduction of olive trees to our region, we are opening the door to further diversifying our regional agricultural market to include not only olive fruit crops, but also secondary crops such as alternative biofuels and olive leaf extract.”

Throughout this two-year project, SFSC faculty member, Dr. Cate Cover, will collaborate with the Hardee County IDA to engage SFSC students in research, education and extension activities designed to expand olive production in Central Florida. The research team will evaluate success of new low-chill olive varieties, develop agronomic practices and pest management recommendations for commercial olive production, evaluate irrigation practices to reduce ambient grove temperature and increase chill hours, and develop education and support programming for local growers to expand into olive production. By the end of the two-year project, the team will have identified ideal olive varieties for both flatwoods and ridge growing environments, published a series of grower support materials, and engaged 200 growers and producers in olive cultivation activities.

“Hardee County IDA is excited to be partnering with SFSC on this opportunity to further develop a potential alternative agricultural crop,” said Bill Lambert, director of Hardee County Economic Development. “It is anticipated that alternative crops such as olives will allow our economy to maintain its agriculture roots, while diversifying from the dependency upon one ‘mono-culture,’ such as citrus. We have a strong commitment through this grant to gain knowledge, understanding and to gather important data necessary to potentially develop this new sector of our economy. Having the ability to work in conjunction with SFSC on this endeavor is a wonderful opportunity, and we are anxious to get started.”  

By evaluating a number of new specialty crops to replace lost citrus production, Hardee County IDA has found that olives present the most promising near-term specialty crop. However, additional research and data are needed to develop a viable commercial olive production road map for the region, which the USDA grant funds will provide. Currently, Hardee County IDA has a test plot of 19 different low-chill olive cultivars, including major varieties for production of olive oil, black mission olives and specialty whole fruit olives, as well as olive leaf extract.

“This grant is the result of a truly wonderful partnership with Hardee County IDA to further regional agriculture economic development efforts,” said Dr. Lindsay Lynch, director of grants development and federal relations at SFSC. “These funds will support the applied research activities needed to establish olives as an emerging alternative crop for Florida’s Heartland.”

There are more than 500 olive varieties, each with its own unique recipe of environmental and agronomic conditions needed to reach commercial production. The funds from this USDA grant will provide Hardee County producers interested in launching their own olive-growing operations, with much needed guidance on the best cultivars for the region, successful agronomic practices, strategies to increase chill hours, and integrated pest management protocol.

For more information about “From Orange Juice to Olive Oil,” contact Dr. Lynch at 863-784-7345 or lindsay.lynch@southflorida.edu.