08 Oct

Panhandle olive grove produces first commercial harvest

By Tony Bridges,

Don Mueller has spent eight years raising an olive grove from a sandy, secluded piece of ground in the Panhandle’s Jackson County.

That’s 220 trees planted, irrigated and nursed through summer grasshopper invasions and winter cold spells, with only what help he could cajole from friends and in spite of doubts that he would succeed. The work has been arduous, the details that needed minding seemingly infinite.

As hobbies go, it is not the easiest choice for a septuagenarian retiree, even one as robust as Mueller. But ask, and he will tell you he has done it happily, just for the joy he gets out of tending that tiny Mediterranean fruit.

Now, the labor is beginning to pay off in other ways, too. Green Gate Groves is wrapping up its first commercial harvest, ending the season with a modest 200 pounds of olives sold to local buyers.

“It’s been interesting, and it’s been fun,” Mueller said. “You have to love olives and olive oil. Otherwise, it might be work.”

Mueller, a former management consultant, discovered olives while living and working in Europe. He and his wife visited Italy often, and their favorite hotel was surrounded by an olive grove. The owner educated him about them.

“The more I learned, the better I liked it,” he said.

After he retired, the Muellers moved to Bay County, drawn by the abundance of shoreline. He fished his way along the coast and up and down the bays and bayous until the freezer at home was packed with more fish than the family could eat.

“I got tired of fishing and boating,” he said. “That started it.”

He had learned enough about olive trees to know he needed land in a temperate area, somewhere that wasn’t too hot, but didn’t often get much below 45 degrees, either. North Florida isn’t exactly an ideal location – olives are grown mostly in Spain, Greece, Italy and California.

Still, Mueller wanted to try, so he chose the sand hills of south Jackson County and bought a five-acre plot near Compass Lake in 1999. Then, he started importing trees from overseas.

They come in different varieties: manzanilla, sevillano, leccino, frantoio, mission and a half-dozen others, maybe more. Mueller experimented with most of them to see which ones could survive the local weather. The sevillanos didn’t fare well. The missions thrived. The frantoios grew but took seven years to produce fruit.

“Trying to get the trees through their first two years is difficult,” he said.

He installed irrigation systems to dribble water to the trees and fought off grasshoppers that attacked the saplings. Friends helped him rake the fruit from the limbs, where it dropped into collection nets, and he learned to process the olives and make his own oil.

(Mueller uses lye and brine to mellow the naturally bitter fruit into snackable table olives and makes extra virgin oil by pressing batches of olives with a 20-ton hydraulic jack.)

When he wasn’t working on the grove, Mueller was remodeling the inside of the tractor barn to make it resemble a rustic Italian villa, putting in handmade cabinets, a fireplace and rocking chairs. The barn is where he experiments with flavors, usually with Chivas, his Scottish collie, nearby.

This fall, he finally was ready. He opened the grove to visitors.

He doesn’t sell processed olives or oil because of the liability. Instead, he sells olives right off the tree, along with a recipe for processing them at home. Mueller said he had to set a limit of five pounds per customer. Even then, the ascolana olives – think martini garnishes – sold out in two days at $4 a pound.

There still are plenty left. The limbs on some trees were sagging nearly to the ground Sunday. But Mueller said he can wait only about another week before he will have to harvest the rest.

He will turn them into table olives and oil and give the crop away to friends. But even if this harvest doesn’t sell out, he has proven something, Mueller said.

“This could be a whole new industry for the Panhandle,” he said. “Everybody said I couldn’t do it, so I did.”

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