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Crossroads farmers cultivate olives to grow new industry (w/video)

By Jessica Rodrigo
April 26, 2014 at 5:01 p.m.
Updated April 25, 2014 at 11:26 p.m.

Luz Maria walks down one of many rows to place the paper boxes that protect the new olive trees that are being planted at the Welch farm in Victoria County. JonAnn and Jackie Welch are starting their olive farm on 100 acres of land with 60,000 trees.

Three kinds of trees

• Arbequina is an oil variety from northern Spain. The fruit is small. Its oil is quite aromatic and fruity with very little pungency or bitterness. It has a short shelf life of about one year.

• Arbosana variety has fruit that looks very much like arbequina fruit, and the tree originates from the same region. The oil from arbosana is more pungent and bitter than arbequina; it is also quite fruity and pleasant. Since this variety is relatively new, there is a lack of historical data on quality and performance.

Koroneiki is the primary oil variety of Greece with well-recognized quality characteristics such as a very heavy fruit set but very small fruit. Koroneiki oil is generally quite green in color, very fruity with an emphasis on herbal-green fruitiness, and it has medium bitterness and pungency. It has a long shelf life of two or more years.

Source: olivesource.com

A PUSH IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION

Cliff Little, president of Agromillora California, has played an important role in bringing the new industry to the area as one of the largest olive tree suppliers in the country.

"Victoria looks like an area that in many ways is suited for growing olives in an emerging domestic olive market," said Little, 33.

After meeting former Mayor Will Armstrong a few years ago and talking about the possibility of bringing the industry to Victoria, he believes there is a lot of opportunity to be successful in olive oil production.

"I have not been met with that type of reception and push to try to capitalize on a potential opportunity in this market," Little said.

Armstrong is happy to have played a small role in giving the Crossroads a chance to grow a new industry.

"We may be on the cutting edge of a new cash crop for this area," Armstrong said. "This is revolutionary in agriculture for our area."

April showers may have slowed down the planting process for farmers Jackie and JonAnn Welch, of Inez, but it didn't stop them.

On April 14, they started to plant 60,000 olive trees in less than a week's time on 100 acres of land. Time was of the essence as they worked with the unpredictability of Mother Nature.

"With these trees, you don't want to do it too late or too early," said JonAnn Welch, 46.

As clouds drifted above their farm near Placedo, she worked alongside family members and about 20 farm workers planting the young olive trees in neat rows stretching into the horizon. She helped open box after box of the 18-month-old trees and then laid them out to be planted in perfect intervals.

Like an organized game of leap frog, the men worked in small groups to transplant the trees from their plastic pots to the soil, where each tree will grow and produce fruit.

Olive trees need the right conditions to produce fruit, Welch said. To ensure their crop will flourish in the South Texas climate, she and her husband had the soil sampled and tested before investing in the olive farm.

"The climate here is different from California," JonAnn Welch said. "It would be important to monitor the conditions because a tree might produce great-looking foliage but no fruit."

After doing extensive research and talking to a grower in California, the couple decided to expand their farming operation to include three species of olives - Arbosana, Arbequina and Koroneiki.

The Welches farm 11,000 acres in Victoria and Calhoun counties and grow corn, cotton, wheat, milo and soybeans. Jackie Welch, 55, has been in the business since 1977 and is an expert in irrigation.

Their 100-acre olive farm near Placedo is a testament to his specialization. Black tubing winds between each row of trees and will provide each plant with water and nutrients to produce fruit in about two years.

The Welches started working the land in September by clearing the pasture and making elevation changes for watering and drainage. There are miles of tubing and wire for support and thousands of bamboo sticks that provide support for the young trees.

"We're not trying to reinvent the wheel," said JonAnn Welch. "We're doing a lot of what we already know."

Each plant, which measures less than 2 feet tall, is placed next to a bamboo stick for support and housed in a cardboard sleeve to protect it from the wind. Once the trees are hearty enough to stand alone, the sleeves and supports will be removed.

After two years, the Welches will be able to collect their first harvest for olive oil production. In the third year and each subsequent year, they can begin collecting full harvests.

With the South Texas climate and humidity, Jackie Welch said there will be concern for fungicides and other potential problems, but they are preventable.

"Just like any kind of crop, you have to stay on top of it," he said.

Meanwhile, in DeWitt County, another couple is hoping to cultivate their own olive farm.

Kim and Jerry Followwill, of Mission Valley, are prospective olives growers who are bringing 16,000 olive trees to the Crossroads.

They're preparing to plant trees on 25 acres of ranch land they own in DeWitt County.

Kim Followwill, 56, has been researching olive farming for a few years and believes it will fit well into her agriculture background.

"This will be our first venture in having a real farm," she said. "It'll be new to us as it is to most of the area."

The popularity of bringing the olive industry to this part of Texas is exciting, Kim Followwill said.

She and her husband, an orthopedic surgeon in Victoria, plan to a have their trees in the ground by the end of May and are in the process of installing an irrigation system.

Unlike the Welches' farm, which is located between Victoria and Placedo off U.S. Highway 87, the Followwills are situated near the Guadalupe River and will need to put up a high fence to keep out the hogs and deer.

They've visited the Welch farm on different occasions to learn how they are approaching the new crop.

"They (the Welches) have been generous in sharing information with us," Followwill said. "I'm seeing the development of a group in this area that is very supportive of each other."

It should be a profitable crop, and there is a lot of domestic demand for the product, said Kim Followwill.

JonAnn Welch is excited to be a part of a bright new future in the Crossroads.

"It can be a viable crop in our area," she said. "Anytime we can get more economic sectors in the community, it makes us stronger."

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