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Georgia farmers banking on olive groves

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

LAKELAND, GA.

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.")

California olive oil accounts for the remaining 1 percent, and the Golden State processed 850,000 gallons in 2009. Yet East Coast consumers use more olive oil than the rest of the nation combined, a fact that should inspire Hawkinsville, Ga., businessman and new olive farmer Robert Krueger.

To Krueger, the appeal of Georgia oil on this coast is that it will be fresher: local and sustainable, with a low carbon footprint. "More importantly, we'll be able to tell what good olive oil tastes like," he said.

The Georgia campaign welcomes revised USDA standards for grades of olive oil set to take effect Oct. 25. They are voluntary, the first revisions since 1948 and not without controversy; the International Olive Council has rejected the findings of a recent University of California at Davis study that a majority of imported oils labeled as extra-virgin were not top quality.

New standards will increase consumer awareness, Krueger says. He and his fellow farmers see it as a win-win. And it just so happens that the testing of olive-oil samples will take place at the USDA lab in Blakely, Ga., 122 miles west of Lakeland, where arbequina olives are coming on strong.

Blueberries, which have become the biggest piece of Georgia's fruit production pie, are a strategic part of the olive-oil plan. Berry varieties that can be harvested by machine are grown in rows spaced about 15 feet apart, like the olive trees. (The super-high-density system of planting olive trees was developed in Spain; it facilitates harvesting and improves yield per acre.) With the equipment in place and having the benefit of alternate harvest seasons, blueberry farmers in Pierce County are also now growing olives. The Center of Innovation for Agribusiness reports that a full crop is expected by 2013.

Today, three Shaw men - Jason, brother Sam and cousin Kevin - form the backbone of Georgia Olive Farms, a small cooperative that wants to grow and market its own product and create jobs for a local economy in which the largest employer is the public school system. Sam, 35, a bank executive, handles trials for cold-hardiness and, possibly, a worthy table olive. More than a dozen olive tree varieties known to Israel, Croatia, Turkey, Spain, Italy and France stand a foot high in plastic pots, awaiting assignment in a protected nursery on Shaw farmland.

Jason, 38, is president of an insurance company and is running for a seat in the state legislature, hoping to follow his dad's 17-year career there. Since 1993, Kevin, 40, and his wife, Gayla, have run the 267-acre River Bottom Farm, about 25 acres of which are now planted with olive trees.

"Experience is knowledge," Kevin says. "We're trying to learn without pissing money away, you know?"

The farmer, who feels most comfortable in surfer flip-flops, shorts and a polo shirt, reached out to olive experts in California about ways to master the controlled environment that is required.

The fruits of Kevin's labors were evident on a recent tour of the Shaws' main olive grove.

Olive trees do not like to have "wet feet," so they grow in berms of soil six inches high, to aid drainage. The wire-and-bamboo supports help the young trees withstand wind and the punishing afternoon thunderstorms familiar to anyone who has spent time in southern Georgia or northern Florida.

Humidity remains a major concern, even with good drainage. Organic farming would be a real challenge.

"We thought we could be somewhat sloppy applying herbicide and learned pretty quickly that was wrong," Kevin says. Other lessons learned: "We lost 65 to 70 percent of what we had in the ground in the harsh winter of 2008."

Nonetheless, the Shaws' diligence shows. As people around here like to say, "Kevin could make something grow out of blacktop."

With the expectation of a commercial harvest a year away, Georgia Olive Farms co-op partner and lawyer Berrien Sutton has been investigating processing options. He hasn't found a commercial olive oil press east of the Mississippi.

For now, the answer seems to be mobile: a press that operates inside what looks like a tractor-trailer and can park at a spot central to the olive farmers. Sutton has contacted Mill on Wheels, which makes the rounds of boutique olive-oil farms in California. Storage facilities would have to be built, Jason says.

Georgia Olive Farms got its early taste of oil Sept. 8. Jason and Sam drove 40 pounds of mostly green (instead of purple) small, round arbequina olives to a friend in Marianna, Fla., who owns an old private oil press and came back with 500 milliliters: about a pint.

Family members and friends gathered 'round a rustic table set up in the field. They dipped slices of baguette into the glass bowl.

The oil was a beautiful chartreuse-gold. It hit the palate as buttery and mild, a little thin, with a slight peppery finish. The Shaws were as giddy as Georgia men allow themselves to get in public.

"It's good, isn't it," Jason said, nodding. "We've just begun."

The Georgians continue to research; last week, they visited Texas Olive Ranch, a few hours south of San Antonio, where owner Jim Henry expects to harvest 500 tons from his five-year-old trees this season.

The Shaws figure they have spent about $250,000 thus far. Kevin estimates per-acre costs at $5,000 to $7,000. In four years, they expect to have 100 acres planted. Within six years, they hope to "knock a dent" in that big investment. Ten years down the road, they want to tend 25,000 acres of olives and clear $2,000 to $2,500 in profit per acre. Better than peanuts, for sure. The wholesale potential: $14 to $19 per gallon.

The Shaws had a booth at the Georgia Grown Food Show in Atlanta last year and presented their plans to an enthusiastic crowd.

"Chefs from Atlanta to Savannah to Valdosta were coming at us," Jason Shaw says. "They want Georgia oil. And we're going to give it to them."

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