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Conservation Helps Texas Olive Orchard Thrive

By Melissa Blair, NRCS Public Affairs Specialist

Near the small southwest Texas town of Asherton, there is a sight that surprises everyone the first time they enter Kerry Thornhill Houston’s ranch. As you top the hill, the land transforms into a rolling valley with a vibrant green olive orchard that some would compare to pictures of Tuscany. One of the most impressive factors is this orchard was only established seven years ago.

For more than 100 years, Houston’s family has lived and owned land in Dimmit County. Her dream of carrying on a Texas family legacy has come a long way since she purchased her land in January 2012 and by September had planted 8,000 olive tree seedlings on 40-acres. Disappointment came the following year when she lost a portion of her orchard to flooding.

Houston harvested her first olives in late 2016 from the four varieties she selected to grow on the ranch: Arbequina, Mission, Picual and Tosca. The olives were milled, racked and bottled as extra virgin olive oil in 2017 under the name, 1836: A Texas Olive Oil Company. Today, the boutique olive oil is showcased at select cooking and chef events, sold online, and sold at fine stores across Texas as well as carried by a major food distributor.  

Taking care of the land and natural resources is important to Houston, who believes the impact of these conservation efforts will translate improved production and a high-quality olive and oil.

Getting Started

In 2015, she began working with Dusty Crowe, district conservationist with the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Carrizo Springs, to develop a voluntary conservation plan for her farm.

“I connected with NRCS staff after attending a soil health workshop, and they have provided assistance and support to implement conservation practices in the olive orchard that are helping increase soil health, olive health and production,” said Houston. “One-on-one technical assistance from Dusty and his unwavering support of a ‘first time farmer’ to encourage and educate me on conservation has helped create a thriving and productive olive operation in six and a half years.”

Helping Others

Houston is no stranger to hard work. As a woman entrepreneur, she knew going in as a first-time farmer that she had a lot to learn. She also gladly shares the knowledge she acquires with current and new olive producers she meets. She serves as a board member and secretary of the Texas Association of Olive Oil and is a member of the American Olive Oil Producers Association.

She is working on a grant received by Texas AgriLife Extension Service on treatment for root rot and preventing freeze damage to olive trees. This grant funds an organic chemical trial in selected TXAOO member orchards, including Houston’s. She has witnessed firsthand how this pathogen in the soil can cause root rot and take its toll on her olive trees within a few days.

She was elected in December 2018 as the first female district director of the Dimmit County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) #320. As a board member, Houston hopes to expand the knowledge of what the SWCD does in helping county landowners and land managers.

“I became involved with these organizations to collaborate with and educate other Texas growers to ensure our collective success,” said Houston.

Sharing about a conversation with a fellow olive grower, she offered the following advice: “Installing an orchard takes thoughtful planning. You must take the whole design into consideration including the soil, compaction, irrigation, and harvesting to make sure it all will work before you ever put a tree in the ground. Even with all the planning and calculations, things will still happen such as floods, drought, root rot and more but you learn as you go and learn how to handle and treat each of these events.”

Finding the Perfect Balance

Houston implemented a customized conservation plan to address her short and long-term goals, while maximizing her natural resources for a sustainable olive orchard and vibrant harvested olive crop. The conservation technical assistance of the NRCS along with the financial assistance through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) helped her install the recommended conservation practices to improve her operation. It also helped Houston stay prepared for the farming challenges, while supporting the management of three different and distinct soil types within the orchard.

She installed a micro irrigation system with filtration to control water application and timing directly to the orchard tree line. This system removes impurities in the water, improves water distribution, and allows her to fertilize the orchard through the system, also known as water fertigation. Proper irrigation management is critical for all stages of olive evolution production and is crucial to sustaining consistent yields in South Texas.

Additionally, she follows the NRCS irrigation water management plan designed to preserve South Texas water resources while still supporting her orchard farming practices. The management plan requires her to monitor rainfall and soil moisture with soil moisture probes. She says soil moisture, rainfall and monitoring trees are all important but when the trees start blooming, she is in full fruit management mode for three to four months.

After harvest, she is back to orchard maintenance with tree trimming, spraying copper on tree wounds and providing beneficial nutrients through the water fertigation system.

Cover crops are another conservation practice Houston has implemented to alleviate soil compaction, allow for the expansion of root systems through moisture distribution, provide biological diversity, and reduce soil erosion. After preparing the orchard, she installed a cool season cover crop seed mix recommended by NRCS based on the soils on her farm. Houston said driving through the orchard and seeing the cover crops go from seed to a thriving crop has been a remarkable show. Several acres in the orchard were planted with a native plant mixture of pollinators as well.

“What really impressed me about Kerry when we first started working together was that she understood that you can’t cheat the land,” said Crowe. “She knew that in order to be successful and sustainable she had to put in the work and do the right things for the right reasons.”

Crowe added, Houston took a marginal piece of ground in Dimmit County and turned it into something unique and amazing through hard work, perseverance, and constant learning. “I am proud of her for what she has accomplished and grateful to have her as a cooperating producer.”

Sweet Taste of Success

During the heat of the summer, Houston can be found walking or riding her ATV through the orchard checking the olives, looking for water leaks, and enjoying the fruits of her labor.

The growing season for olives in South Texas runs from March to September, but rain can delay harvest as late as October, as it did last year. This year she was able to harvest her crop in September during the night when temperatures were cooler. The harvesting machine drives over the row of trees, wraps around and shakes the tree, depositing the olives onto a conveyor belt that transports them into the holding bin. Then the olives are offloaded and driven to Dripping Springs for milling.

“For the best olive oil, milling the olives the same day as harvest is best,” said Houston. “To comply with International Olive Council (IOC) rules for Extra Virgin classification however, the fruit must be converted to oil within 72 hours of harvest. After roughly two to three months of racking, the oil is filtered and bottled for sale.” 

Houston is grateful to the NRCS for their technical and financial assistance. “They have contributed to my knowledge of my soil and helped me build my farming practice. Most importantly, I’m proud to work with them to conserve our most precious Texas resource ‒ water.”

Conservation Helps Texas Olive Orchard Thrive, By Melissa Blair, USDA-NRCS public affairs specialist, (2019, Sept)