As they wound through the Italian countryside in January, Cambren Davis and Deirdre Rizzo were struck by the picture postcard images all around them.
Soon they found that olives are grown in Florida, but take a back seat to better-known Sunshine State crops such as citrus and strawberries. Olive cultivation in Florida stretches back to the 1700s.
The couple decided they wanted to give the business a try, while teaching others the benefits of doing the same.
That was the beginning of the Olive Grove.
“Everything just seemed to come together because it was meant to be,'' Rizzo said.
Last month, Davis and Rizzo got a permit from the Hernando County Planning and Zoning Commission that will allow them to promote olive farming as an alternative crop during two public events a year on the 3.8 acres they bought in March on Rester Road, west of Brooksville.
They're also permitted to sell olive products — ranging from the plants and prepared table olives to olive oil and olive-based soap — from a roadside stand that is adjacent to the Suncoast Trail. While they don't yet have regular hours, the plan is to open on weekends sometime in the future. They have taken their products to local farmers markets and have been greeted with interest.
Davis, 55, a helicopter mechanic, and Rizzo, 50, who has a concert promotions business, hope the grove will eventually become their primary business, and they plan to fix up the small A-frame building on their property so they can live there.
Already, they're seeing some income from their work. They have planted 52 olive trees and hope to have 200 by next year.
That would make the olive grove a rarity in this part of Florida, according to Stephen Jenner, the inspector for the Florida Department of Agriculture in Hernando and Citrus counties.
Jenner himself grows olives on his Dunnellon property, and he believes the crop could take off in this part of the state.
“I really do think there is actually a market for olives to grow here,'' he said.
A recent trade magazine featured Florida-grown olives and pomegranates, and locally the buzz about the products has convinced Stacy Strickland, who heads the county's cooperative extension service, to do a demonstration planting with the two crops. A demonstration crop would help determine how the plants might fare in the local climate and conditions.
The trick to taking olives or any agricultural product on as a business is simple, Strickland said.
“One of the first rules of farming is: Can you sell it, and will people buy it?'' he said.
Davis and Rizzo are finding customers. They also have found that olive trees love what the local climate and the well-drained sandy soil have to offer. While their “grove'' is now just a smattering of trees only a couple of feet tall, they have already produced plenty of blooms and olives.
The plants enjoy the direct sun, are drought-tolerant and can withstand freezing temperatures into the mid teens. So far, the couple also have found that pests don't seem interested in the trees. Even rabbits and deer seem to leave them alone, Rizzo said.
Davis said the olive trees also do well and produce olives when grown in containers, and they are popular as landscape plants as well.
Their grove includes Koroneiki Greek olives and Arbosana and Arbequina Spanish olive varieties.
Neither Davis nor Rizzo has much agricultural experience, but Davis spent time in Tunisia as a child. Olives and olive products are among the primary agricultural products of the small country in North Africa on the Mediterranean Sea.
“I remember playing in the olive groves as a child,'' Davis said.
He also remembers women using a piece of a marble Roman column to crush the olives; then they would stomp them in a vat to extract the olive oil.
Davis and Rizzo plan a more modern mechanical method for producing olive oil. The oil is one of the reasons Davis believes that growing olives in Florida can be a profitable venture.
An acre of olive trees can produce about 200 gallons of oil, and 55-gallon drums of extra virgin olive oil can fetch $3,000 wholesale — even more for certified organic oil.
“We're really excited about this being Florida's up-and-coming crop,'' Rizzo said.
As the two plan to encourage others to grown olives, they also want to educate people about the health benefits of olive oil and other olive products. Olive tea, for example, is thought to fight viruses, lower cholesterol and reduce blood sugar.
Rizzo quips about another benefit.
“Plus they're a symbol of peace and prosperity,'' she said.
Jenner said his small grove of olives has flourished over the past five years. He expects Davis and Rizzo will see the same from their trees, which came from Georgia, where there are some larger commercial olive operations.
Jenner also said Davis and Rizzo are just doing what a lot of other people are in these tough economic times.
“People are really trying to look into new and interesting ways of getting alternative income,'' he said. “They're going back to this old gardening idea. They're growing more things in their own back yard. They're becoming more self-sufficient.
“I can see real potential with this.''