Georgia farmers banking on olive groves

By Bonnie S. Benwick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 22, 2010; 10:29 AM


In this low-lying Southern farmland, where a friendly wave of the hand is both automatic and necessary to keep the late-summer gnats at bay, a green effort to end America's dependence on foreign oil has taken root.

Olive oil, that is.

More than a century after a hurricane destroyed what had been the last remnants of olive orchards in Georgia, the oldest trees on Kevin Shaw's farm are three years old and six feet tall or better, the size and shape of specimens twice their age. Next to long, low rows of cotton, they're well seated in sandy loam, staked to sturdy bamboo with parallel strands of high-tensile wire.

Generations of Shaw family farmers in Lanier County have grown cotton, peanuts and corn. But in 1996, Lakeland native Jason Shaw returned from a trip to Verona, Italy, where he had been struck by the sight of prolific orchards, and said, "We ought to grow olives in Georgia."

Eventually, they did. Each of the past three years, the Shaws and others planted arbequina, koroneiki and arbosana varieties. Now 12 farmers and a small army of extension service agents and horticulturists are tending 95 acres, spread over seven Georgia counties south of Atlanta that fall in the South's "olive belt," a zone with a climate conducive to growing the cold-resistant types.

That might not sound like a lot, considering the state's 3.3 million acres of harvested cropland. But folks in Georgia are so eager, they can taste it. In fact, earlier this month they did just that, at an unofficial, early pressing of the first Georgia-grown olive oil since the 19th century.

"We are excited about it, to say the least," says Donnie Smith, director of the Center of Innovation for Agribusiness, near the University of Georgia's College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences in Tifton. "We see the potential of a consumer-driven product. We feel like we can grow a better olive oil."

The state's olive history has informed this modern-day effort. Trees were planted near Spanish missions in the 1600s and grew for a hundred years along the southeastern coast. The English found olives thriving in 1732 and cultivated more around Savannah. Circa 1804, Thomas Jefferson obtained olive trees for James Hamilton Couper, an agricultural pioneer in the South whose groves produced into the late 1800s; there are records of olive oil shipments from St. Simons Island.

After the Civil War, the importance of rice and cotton crops and loss of a labor force overtook efforts to keep the olive trees productive. In 1898, Hurricane No. 7 devastated coastal groves.

"Table olives grew on Jekyll Island as late as the 1970s," says Gerard Krewer, a U-Ga. professor and horticulturist who has been tracking the progress of young olive trees planted in Lanier County.

Weather and good fortune permitting, Georgia's 2011 olives will be turned into liquid gold, not brined in jars. The statistics the Georgians like to recite hold a world of promise: The United States is the third-largest consumer of olive oil in the world. Consumption rose almost 8 percent from 2008 to 2009. And perhaps most important, 99 percent of the olive oil consumed by Americans comes from other countries: about 70 million liters in 2009 that cost us $700 million. (Most of it is labeled "extra-virgin.")

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