In January of 2012, the Metro Spirit took a look at premium olive oil production in Georgia. Yeah, olive oil production. In Georgia.
When you think of Georgia agriculture, you probably conjure up the usual suspects – peaches, peanuts, cotton and maybe Vidalia onions. If one south Georgia farmer has his way, however, Georgia will soon be known for its high quality extra virgin olive oil.
“We feel like the market is definitely there,” says Jason Shaw, whose Georgia Olive Farms in Lakeland, Georgia is leading the charge. “Especially when you weigh in the fact that there’s nothing out there that’s close to being considered local.”
Shaw says that over 98 percent of the nation’s olive oil is imported.
“The industry is still obviously brand new on the East Coast, so we’re hopeful that it’s going to be as successful as it appears that it can be,” he says. “And we hope that more growers will want to plant olive trees, because we’re going to need more acreage to establish the kind of industry we hope to build here in the South.”
Though olive growers in California have about a ten year head start, Shaw hopes to use their knowledge to close the gap.
“Obviously, there was a lot of doubt, but at the same time, we felt like there was an upside and enough chance of success that we decided to try it,” he says. “Most people thought we were crazy, and maybe we were. But so far we’ve been pretty lucky.”
That luck has come with a great deal of patience, and to a certain extent it’s proved provisional. Shaw planted his olive trees in 2009 and they didn’t start producing olives until last fall. That’s a long time to wonder if you’re doing it right, and though he’s received a lot of help from the Georgia Department of Agriculture, the Center for Innovation for Agribusiness and, oddly, the head of the Australian Olive Association, ultimately, it’s all his doing.
“You’re looking at five years before you really hit full production,” he says. “I hope I’ll have a whole lot more fruit in 2012 than I did in 2011, but we still need a lot more acreage in production to get where we want to be.”
The super high density growing method favored by Shaw was developed in Spain around 20 years ago. He plants over 600 trees per acre and keeps them in a kind of hedgerow, which he mechanically harvests with a modified blueberry picker.
“It’s a once and done technique,” he says. “You only pick once a year.”
The trees will start flowering and going through their pollination window around the first part of April, and then the work begins.
“We should have our fruit set by the third week of April,” he says. “We’ll pump them up and try to produce the fruit. Then, we’ll put them through a stress mid-summer to make them produce more oil.”
It’s a tricky balance, he says. Not enough water and the trees will die. Too much water and they won’t produce enough oil.
“We shoot for 40 gallons of oil per ton of olives,” he says. “And the way you get that higher amount is by stressing the olives.”
Unlike West Coast growers, who don’t harvest until late October or early November, the Georgia olive harvest occurs in September.
For the first harvest, Shaw transported the fruit by overnight refrigerated truck to a mill in south Texas, but by this year’s harvest, he hopes to process the olives in his own mill.
“We have some pretty ambitious goals for the industry, and we want to make sure that we’ve got the infrastructure to support it,” he says.
Shaw, an insurance agent who’s also a state representative, got the idea of growing olives back in the mid 1990s when, as a UGA student, he was on a study abroad program in Verona, Italy. It wasn’t until taking a couple of trips out west to talk with California growers that he decided to give it a try, however.
“We’re still in an experimental mode,” he says. “We’re doing a lot of experimental pruning and irrigation techniques to find out what works for us. The main thing that we have found is that these trees prefer well drained soils.
But why go to so much trouble when olive oil isn’t exactly a scarce commodity on the store shelves?
“There’s already a lot of interest in locally produced fruit and produce,” he says. “And obviously that’s to our advantage.”
Beyond that, however, there’s the fact that almost 70 percent of the oil that’s labeled extra virgin olive oil is not true extra virgin olive oil.
“With that kind of high percentage, there are a lot of people who have not tried a true, premium-quality extra virgin olive oil,” he says. “When you do, it’s like night and day.
And according to Shaw, freshness matters, which is why he can sell it for $25 a bottle (although because of the limited supply, many suggested he sell the first year’s crop for $100 a bottle).
“When we do tastings, you can just drink it,” he says. “And when the people are finished drinking, they don’t look like they’ve just tasted something sour, they’re looking at you like they’ve just had something that’s very pleasing to them.”
Because of the demands of the super high density style of growing, Shaw primarily grows the Arbequina variety. It’s a smaller olive, and at harvest, about 60 percent will have turned dark, though even that percentage is a gamble. The riper the olive is, the more susceptible it is to the weather.
“It’s just like any other farming,” he says. “You’ve got to say your prayers before you go to bed.”