Georgia’s Largest Olive Oil Producer Gears Up for Its (Very) Early Harvest

While drought is not an issue in the Peach State, humidity and hurricanes are not uncommon during Georgia’s late summer harvest.

(Fresh Press Farms)
By Daniel Dawson
Jun. 26, 2023 15:44 UTC
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(Fresh Press Farms)

Agriculture has long been the engine of eco­nomic growth in Georgia. According to the Georgia Farm Bureau, the entire sec­tor is worth $69.4 bil­lion annu­ally and employs one in seven Georgians.

While the state is pere­nially the largest pro­ducer of blue­ber­ries, broiler chick­ens, peanuts, pecans and spring onions, olives main­tain a mod­est foothold, and inter­est is grow­ing.

We are able to come first to mar­ket… This pro­vides us the oppor­tu­nity to bring a really fresh prod­uct to the super­mar­ket shelf before any­one else.- Ciriaco Chavez, agricu­lutre and inno­va­tion direc­tor, Fresh Press Farms

The sec­tor’s poten­tial piqued the inter­est of Ciriaco Chavez, a fix­ture of the California olive oil sec­tor. Virtually all olive oil pro­duc­tion in the United States comes from the Golden State.

In January, Chavez left Boundary Bend, one of the coun­try’s largest pro­duc­ers, along with posts at the Olive Oil Commission of California and the University of California-Davis Olive Center’s research advi­sory com­mit­tee to become the direc­tor of agri­cul­ture and inno­va­tion at Fresh Press Farms.

See Also:Producer Profiles

I saw a very inter­est­ing oppor­tu­nity and cer­tainly lots of unique chal­lenges that are dif­fer­ent to grow­ing olives and pro­duc­ing oil in California,” Chavez told Olive Oil Times.

Before offi­cially mak­ing the move, he had already started work­ing remotely as a con­sul­tant. I was advis­ing on which vari­eties to har­vest, when to har­vest, but was not there in per­son dur­ing the har­vest,” he said.

Shortly after Chavez offi­cially joined the largest olive oil pro­ducer in the east­ern U.S., Fresh Press Farms earned a Silver Award for its medium-inten­sity blend at the 2023 NYIOOC World Olive Oil Competition.

Chavez might not have been fully involved in last year’s crop, but he is already gear­ing up for the start of the 2023/24 har­vest, which he pre­dicted could begin as early as the end of August in Fresh Press Farms’ 1,600 hectares of olive groves.

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Fresh Press Farms grows Arbequina, Arbosana and Koroneiki olives at super-high-density in southwestern Georgia.

From what I’m see­ing, the har­vest looks like it will be a bit of a mixed bag,” he said. We have some areas of the grove that look fan­tas­tic with really strong pro­duc­tion, more so than we prob­a­bly have had in pre­vi­ous years. But other areas are not look­ing as good.”

Georgia does not face the same set of chal­lenges as California and other tra­di­tional olive-grow­ing regions. Chavez said there are no tra­di­tional pests or olive tree dis­eases in the state, and drought is not a sig­nif­i­cant con­cern.

The humid­ity is prob­a­bly the biggest chal­lenge,” he said. Humidity can lead to dif­fer­ent fun­gal dis­eases that affect the olive leaves and fruit if we’re not care­ful. To date, we’ve been able to man­age it through pre­ven­ta­tive fungi­cide pro­grams.”

Along with humid­ity, the south­west­ern cor­ner of Georgia, where Fresh Pess Farms is located, is also prone to extreme weather events.

We’re faced with tor­na­does in this part of Georgia,” Chavez said, and strong thun­der­storm.”

Fresh Press Farms sits on the south­east­ern edge of Dixie Alley, a region of the south­east­ern U.S. that fre­quently expe­ri­ences tor­na­does due to its cli­mate and geog­ra­phy.

The farm is also exposed to hur­ri­canes and trop­i­cal storms, with trees grow­ing just 110 kilo­me­ters away from the Gulf of Mexico.

With har­vest begin­ning at the end of August, one of the wettest times of year in the state, rain is not uncom­mon.

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We mon­i­tor the weather lead­ing up to har­vest time and if, if we see active hur­ri­canes, we’ll adjust our har­vest sched­ule accord­ingly,” Chavez said. When it is time to har­vest, we absolutely get in there and har­vest 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with all our equip­ment.”

Along with the rain, tem­per­a­tures usu­ally exceed the 27 ºC thresh­old for pro­duc­ing extra vir­gin olive oil at this time of year.

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Sending small batches of olives to the mill ensures they are transformed in a controlled environment and not sitting around in the hot Georgia sun.

Chavez said Fresh Press Farms deals with high tem­per­a­tures by har­vest­ing at night and send­ing small batches to the mill, which is located at one of the company’s two groves.

We have plenty of chal­lenges, but we have a great team who knows the area,” Chavez said. We have local peo­ple work­ing for us who know the soils, know the cli­mate and have done a great job grow­ing the trees and prepar­ing them for size­able pro­duc­tion in the future.”

Along with great peo­ple, Chavez attrib­uted the company’s ris­ing suc­cess to its ver­ti­cal inte­gra­tion, which allows it to con­trol every step of the process and pre­vents the spread of pests or dis­eases.

Fresh Press Farms grows Arbequina, Arbosana and Koroneiki olives in super-high-den­sity olive groves, a com­mon arrange­ment in the state.

However, the com­pany has planted ten addi­tional vari­eties at one of its farms, includ­ing Chemlali and Picual, to see which will grow best.

We’re at the very early stages in that trial,” Chavez said. I’m very curi­ous to see how it evolves and what other vari­eties could be adept to our unique Georgian cli­mate.”

While the Peach State’s unique cli­mate can com­pli­cate a late sum­mer har­vest, Chavez said being one of the first north­ern hemi­sphere olive oil pro­duc­ers to come to mar­ket has dis­tinct advan­tages.

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Harvesting at night when temperatures are cooler is one of the ways Fresh Press Farms ensures high-quality production.

We are able to come first to mar­ket, up to a full month or two months ahead of other Northern Hemisphere pro­duc­ers,” Chavez said. This pro­vides us the oppor­tu­nity to bring a really fresh prod­uct to the super­mar­ket shelf before any­one else.”

He added that Fresh Press Farms is lever­ag­ing this oppor­tu­nity in its mar­ket­ing and sales strat­egy; it is even in the name. Freshness is the name of the game,” Chavez said.

The com­pany sells extra vir­gin olive oil to gro­cery stores around the U.S. and is secur­ing deals with some of the nation’s largest retail­ers and spe­cialty stores. We’re def­i­nitely nation­wide,” Chavez said.

While Georgia has seen mod­est increases in olive oil pro­duc­tion since com­mer­cial olive farm­ing was first stud­ied two decades ago, Chavez said Georgia would never com­pete with California in terms of vol­ume.

Still, he sees a future in tak­ing advan­tage of the state’s early har­vest and devel­op­ing a local olive oil cul­ture.

Do I think it’s going to become the Olive State, not the Peach State?” Chavez said. No, I don’t. And we don’t mind that. We like this lit­tle niche we’ve carved out for our­selves here and hope to do the most with it.”



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