Olives: Hawaii’s Latest Farming Gamble

March, 2011

Imagine finding these fine foods at your grocery store: Maui-brand olive oil, jars of savory Kula olives and antioxidant-rich olive-leaf tea grown high on Oahu’s slopes. Even better, imagine stopping on your way home to fill your car with biofuel made from olive byproducts.

These are the visions dancing in farmers’ heads as a new crop takes root in Hawaii. The edible olive has been here for a long time – it was introduced by pioneer gardener and Kamehameha I sidekick Don Francisco de Paula Marin – but a recent surge of interest and expertise is focused on its commercial potential.

Don’t expect the olive to replace sugar or pineapple. While olive trees grow in many Island gardens, some surviving from missionary days, fruit appears where temperatures drop under 45 degrees. Commercial groves would have a limited range, between 2,000 and 4,000 feet. Farmers could face many challenges, from dealing with the new crop’s unforeseen pests to finding labor for hand harvesting. Presses needed for commercial oil production are a major investment, beginning at $75,000.

And there are questions about how invasive the edible olive may be. Ornamental olive species planted in the past have been very eager to make themselves at home in the Islands and are no longer recommended for windbreak hedges. Experts say the edible version needs to be watched for invasive potential, particularly if farmers abandon groves close to natural areas or if the edible olive hybridizes with the more invasive ornamental.

Despite these caveats, farmers on Maui and Oahu have planted thousands of trees, and theUniversity of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources is planning crop trials at its Lalamilo Research Station in Waimea on Hawaii Island.

“Olives would be a real good fit” for dry highlands from Waimea to Kona, says Milton Yamasaki, an agricultural research technician recently retired from CTAHR, where he managed five research stations on the island’s west side.

Yamasaki sees the olive as a low-maintenance niche crop, a possible source of high-end, value-added products that could grow in low-nutrition soils with little water. In fact, old olive trees, planted by Russian immigrants and by rancher Eben Parker Low as early as 1895, still produce fruit in the Waimea countryside.

The olive tree’s Mediterranean neighbor, lavender, already has shown that it can thrive on Maui. Alii Kula Lavender owner Alii Chang harvested his second olive crop in November from experimental trees planted around lavender fields.

Chang pioneered the growing of tropical flowers for export in Nahiku, near Hana, in the 1980s. After moving to the dry, mountain pastures of Kula, he began to plant lavender on a small farm that has since turned into one of Maui’s most successful agri-tourism venues.

While Chang’s 150 trees are thriving, and his first crop produced tasty table olives, “I’m still in the studying stage,” he says. With thousands of acres of pasture surrounding his farm, Chang could lease additional land for olives, but is taking his time to see how the crop progresses.

Others on Maui are forging ahead. These include Jamie Woodburn, who, with his landscape-architect son, Josh, has established a consulting business, Maui Olive Co. LLC. The Woodburns have about 250 young trees on their family’s Kula property and have designed and helped install additional orchards on Maui and on Oahu. As others who have visited olive groves in Italy and California (which supplies most of the olives in the United States), Woodburn thinks farmers could share a co-op oil press, which each would need only once a year.

Maui Olive Co. helped get 2,000 trees in the ground for Helemano Plantation in Wahiawa, a training and employment agency for developmentally disabled persons. Chief operating officer Ann Higa says the plantation hopes to harvest leaves for tea and perhaps to preserve olives Chinese style, like plums. “Our trees are really small yet,” Higa says, but eventually they could be part of a vocational training program or provide jobs for people in Wahiawa.

Farmer Alan Battersby is a hotelier who moved to Maui for his daughter’s health. Battersby owns Calasa Gulch Tree Farm, 20 rough acres with spectacular views where he has planted 1,000 olive trees, including 21 varieties from four Mediterranean countries. Working at a simple outdoor potting area with a single farm employee, Battersby has rooted thousands of cuttings, which he wholesales to a Kula nursery or uses to help others start orchards.

Battersby admits that there is a lot to learn if the olive industry is to avoid the fate of so many other short-lived agricultural ventures in Hawaii’s history. He thinks to really make money, farmers will have to plant “massive amounts.”

But the signs are good; the trees thrive in the cool Upcountry Maui air. Once established, they require minimal water and upkeep. “Every year I get more trees flowering,” Battersby says. “It’s a learning curve, but I think a lot of us are breaking down that curve.” Battersby, who also has started a small vineyard, sees olives as a focus for agri-tourism activities. “Olive oil may take off like wine in the ’70s,” he says. With California the only state producing a significant olive crop, “there is huge room for us to grow.”

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Jill Engledow