It is a muddy day on the grounds of the Sandy Oaks Olive Orchard in Elmendorf, Texas. The grassy knolls of the sweeping orchard are filled with the light dew of the afternoon as the sun permeates the oak trees. The rain has helped the orchard immensely this year.
“We have had a ton of rain. I’m not complaining, but it seems like when we have rain, we also have lightning strike. Our infrastructure goes way down, and we have to build back up again,” said Sandy Winokur, the founder of Sandy Oaks during a recent tour.
The gift shop is filled with curious patrons, tastings of blueberry vinaigrette, olive butter, and extra virgin olive oil are handed out and sampled. Sandy Oaks also makes its own olive leaf tea – a refreshing blend of green tea and vitamin C.
Saundra “Sandy” Winokur founded the orchard in 1998, and has, in turn, created a booming agricultural industry all her own – centered around the olive.
As a native Texan, Winokur grew up on ranches, and always appreciated the idyllic country life. Winokur received her bachelor’s degree from Austin College and her master’s degree at Texas Christian University, where she met her late husband, Dr. Stephen Winokur. She obtained her doctorate degree at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. After they married, Stephen’s career took them to Chicago and eventually New York City, where Sandy studied at the New York Academy of Design.
After Stephen’s death, Sandy stayed in New York, but she was asked along the way to teach a printmaking workshop in Italy.
“Lo and behold, it was right in the middle of an orchard, and I fell in love with the trees. I’m afraid I sketched more trees than anything else,” she said.
When she returned to the states, Sandy finally decided to leave New York and return to her native Texas, where it occurred to her that olive trees would work. It was then that Winokur decided to take the plunge and establish her own orchard.
“The agriculture department was not so enthusiastic about my orchard, so they gave us a hard time. At one point, there were about eight of us starting orchards in Texas, and I wondered if they were fitting us for straight jackets and figuring out which asylum would take us. But it’s funny that the eight of us who hoped we were starting an industry actually did.”
When Sandy decided to start the orchard, she knew next to nothing about agriculture or olive orchards at all.
“I told my family this is what I want to do, and once you tell your family this is what you want to do, you better carry through,” she said. “I had grown up on ranches – and I made the wrong assumption that ranching is like farming.”
By 2002, Sandy had 5,000 trees on her orchard, and by 2005, she had planted close to 6,000 more. There they remained until the leaf cutter ants took down about 4,500 trees. They have since replanted and hope get back to 11,000 trees by the springtime.
Now, years after Sandy began, there are more than 100 olive orchards in Texas, making it the fastest-growing agricultural industry in the state. Sandy Oaks started with eight workers and has grown to a staff of 20. With an orchard, restaurant, events, grocery store, gift shop, and manufacturing – Sandy Oaks makes its own skin care products, too – there’s plenty of work to go around.
Sandy Oaks also has volunteers come out Wednesday through Friday to help strip leaves from olive branches, which Sandy lovingly refers to as “The Stripper’s Club.” The pay is a free meal, and Sandy has playfully said they have even thought about creating T-shirts saying, “I am a Sandy Oaks Stripper.” The leaves are used to make their delicious jelly, as well as their olive leaf tea, and a few skin care products. Sandy Oaks’ extra virgin olive oil is also infused with the leaves.
“It’s important to test our olive oils. There’s been a lot of scandal in the industry where a few companies would label their bottles as extra virgin when really it contained some other type of oil. We send our oils to a laboratory where they certify our oils as ‘extra virgin’ by checking how low the UV rating is and the peroxide oils.”
Sandy Oaks’ oils have a two-to-three-year shelf life, and the orchard always makes sure to label the year the oils were produced. The orchard had a successful year with its extra virgin olive oils – the national average for olive oil acidity to determine if an oil is extra virgin is .08 or less acidity. The average acidity in a batch of Sandy Oaks extra virgin olive oil is .021.
Of the 700 varieties of olives, Sandy Oaks grows 38 varieties. This past year was the biggest crop Sandy Oaks has produced.
“I picked olives that I felt would work well in Texas. The varieties that do best here include Spanish, Tunisian and Greek. I have yet to find a Turkish variety.”
Not only does “Sandy’s soil” grow olives, they are also growing lettuce, spinach, pomegranates, at least one variety of peach, and many other essential but delicious fruits and vegetables.
As the tour moves forward, Sandy points out a few of the olive trees that have unfortunately not made it this year. Their leaves are brown, and it’s clear they don’t have the same vitality as a few of the other trees.
“In any orchard, you’ll lose trees. If I can keep it down to 10%, I’m totally successful,” she said.
After the tour, patrons were invited to participate in yoga with Mobile Om. The class was a briskly paced vinyasa flow on the orchard taught by Catherine Particini. A few patrons went on to enjoy a seasonal lunch in the Sandy Oaks restaurant. The menu included salads, soups and sandwiches – most notably the rich, tasty brioche grilled cheese made with local goat cheese, smoked cheddar, gruyère, local tomato, and olive relish.
This Saturday, Nov. 15, Sandy Oaks is hosting its very own Harvest Festival featuring food, music, tours, and learning segments. The celebration begins at 11 a.m. and costs $30 for adults and $15 for children.
*Set/featured image: Trees, plants and of course olives grow in the beautiful Sandy Oaks Orchard. Photo by Jackie Calvert.