A man and his grandson team up for an agricultural adventure on family land
Out toward Granger, in the middle of Blackland Prairie farmland, a dense grove of fruit trees stands. But they’re not peach, plum, or pecan trees. The trees grow closely together, like hedges, and not one reaches higher than eleven feet. The fruit on the trees, which you might expect to see on a Mediterranean hillside rather than on the prairie, is bitter and slimy when plucked from the branches. Yet despite the fruit’s off-putting texture, the orchard yields a product in high demand: olive oil.
In January of 2009, Curtis Mickan and his grandson, Joshua Swafford, broke ground on Central Texas Olive Ranch, an agricultural adventure that many skeptics consider a risky investment. The grove stretches across thirty-three of 250 acres of land that has been in their family for six generations. “Probably the best thing is getting to work closely with my grandfather. Not many people that get to do that,” Joshua reflects. “For almost three years straight, I worked with him every single day out here. I got to know him very well, and we just became good friends.”
Curtis purchased part of the family property in the 1970s for raising cattle and row crops, at a time when he was also pursuing a lucrative career in Dallas’s transportation industry. Several years after he retired, he returned to Georgetown, and before long he began thinking about increasing his farming enterprise. Intrigued by an article on olive farming, Curtis asked his grandson to find out more about the topic. Joshua was more than halfway through a degree in agriculture business and agriculture leadership and development at Texas A&M University when he started exploring the industry. He spoke with several experts, tested the soil on the family acreage, and learned more about the logistics of olive ranching. Before long, Joshua recognized the investment potential and eagerly shared his research with Curtis.
After Joshua’s graduation, Curtis offered him a job on the ranch as manager of the first olive orchard in central Texas. Together, Curtis and Joshua assembled a business plan, created the orchard layout and irrigation designs, and then cleared and prepared the land. Joshua says, “I didn’t know he wanted to plant 23,000 trees! There’s no such thing as dipping your toes in with him; it’s go hard or go home.” The rows they planted four years ago now make up the largest super-high density orchard in Texas and the fourth largest orchard in Texas.
Texas Olive Industry Pioneers
As pioneers in Texas’s olive oil industry, Joshua and Curtis have come across their fair share of naysayers in the agriculture community—people concerned, for example, about the reliability of Texas’ fluctuating climate. However, Joshua and Curtis are willing to take the chance because they understand that, in farming, risk is inevitable, and 100 percent guarantees simply don’t exist. Not surprisingly, Texas’s unpredictable temperature swings cause the most uncertainty. The summer can bloom too quickly, meaning a shortened spring and growing season, and winter temperatures can fluctuate within a sixty-plus degree span, stressing new growth. In spite of the climate concerns, Joshua considers olive trees “easy to maintain—it’s a tree that naturally wants to grow.” They are self-pollinating and drought-tolerant, and few pests bother the bitter olives growing on Central Texas Olive Ranch. Joshua says, “Texas soils are fantastic, better than in Italy.”
Joshua is confident in their endeavor and believes that despite the “big, initial startup cost, the [financial] return is better than anything else you can do in farming.” Of the two men, Joshua is more adventurous and willing to try new techniques and practices. His grandfather is more methodical; he likes to slow down and examine issues before addressing them. “We balance each other very well,” Joshua says. “There are a lot of things that he did that were done many years ago that really don’t apply now, so I bring youth, energy, and new principles, and he brings tradition and experience.”
Joshua vividly remembers prepping the orchard for planting. Shoulder to shoulder, he and Curtis spent seven weeks lifting rocks out of the distinctive hill country soil. Of the eighty-one rows of olive trees on the ranch, 17,000 are Arbequina, 4,500 are Koroneiki, and 1,500 are Arbosana trees. The rows are spaced eleven feet apart, and five feet separate each tree from its neighbors. “It was a massive learning curve,” Joshua admits. “When we planted our orchard, it took [us] seven to eight months; now I can plant one this size in two months.” In all, there are 792 trees per acre, and each tree yields close to six bottles of olive oil per season.
A New Chapter
To this day, Joshua insists that he never dreamed he would land in the olive industry. Producing, installing, and partnering Central Texas Olive Ranch with his grandfather has brought him invaluable experience that he now shares with growers across Texas. As the owner and president of the Heart of Texas Olive Orchards, he has installed more than 200,000 olive trees on more than 400 acres of land throughout the state. Additionally, he is the lead consultant for over 300,000 olive trees in Texas, as well as the lead field researcher for Texas Tech University’s Research and Development Team.
The olive doesn’t fall far from the tree for Joshua and Curtis. Curtis makes it out to the ranch almost every single day to check on his grove. “He’s on the mower most days, or on a tractor. If he’s not doing that, he’ll walk along and trim the trees,” Joshua says. Together, with their near-endless energy, dedication, and optimism, they have written a new chapter not only in their family’s history, but in Texas’s olive orchard history as well. Joshua says, “If I do half as much as he does when I’m his age, then I’ll be okay.”
Look for Central Texas Olive Oil at farmers’ markets in and around Georgetown as well as on the shelves at Monument Market and Sweet Serendipity.