`Award-Winning Producer Hopes to Promote Olive Oil from The Peachtree State - Olive Oil Times

Award-Winning Producer Hopes to Promote Olive Oil from The Peachtree State

Jun. 27, 2022
Daniel Dawson

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After retir­ing from her posi­tion as a senior exec­u­tive at a large cor­po­ra­tion in 2012, Sharon Flanagan returned to her home­town of Eastman, Georgia.

The rural town is about three hours south of Atlanta, in the agri­cul­tural heart of the state. According to the Dodge County Eastman Development Authority, agri­cul­ture is the largest indus­try in the county.

This gives us a stronger foot­ing as a viable crop. This award ben­e­fits peo­ple inter­ested in pro­duc­ing olive oil in Georgia.- Sharon Flanagan, owner, Five Otters

I knew I wanted to do some­thing that looked nice and would be use­ful for the com­mu­nity,” Flanagan told Olive Oil Times. And I had just learned that Georgia had started to grow olives.”

So with no pre­vi­ous agri­cul­tural expe­ri­ence but a strong work ethic and plenty of deter­mi­na­tion, Five Otters was born.

See Also:Producer Profiles

I decided to go ahead and clear some of my land and try,” she said. I wanted to help with pro­mot­ing the grow­ing of olives.”

With the help of Georgia Olive Farms, Flanagan planted her first 14,000 olive tree seedlings on 25 acres (10 hectares) in August 2014. However, the process was far from a smooth one.

I’m not a farmer. I’m not a hor­ti­cul­tur­ist, but I’m learn­ing all of this, and I’m a hard worker,” she said. One time, most of my orchard had been knocked down [dur­ing a hur­ri­cane], but I was able to get them stood back up.”

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Sharon Flanagan

Another of the lessons Flanagan quickly learned related to tree posi­tion­ing. She orig­i­nally started plant­ing the trees on the hills on her prop­erty.

While the ones far­ther up the hill did well, the trees planted at the bot­tom, where the drainage is worse, the soil is more sandy and cold air sits for longer, even­tu­ally had to be removed and replanted.

After about three or four years of bat­tling that, my heart could­n’t take it any­more,” she said. These trees are not meant to be in this par­tic­u­lar soil in the low area.”

Despite these ini­tial chal­lenges, Flanagan plans to expand and plant 11,000 more trees on 18.5 acres (7.5 hectares).

She har­vested her first crop of olives in 2020. Flanagan hired a team to come and hand­pick the olives, leav­ing the har­vested ones in a cus­tom-made trailer that brought them to a small trac­tor-trailer refrig­er­a­tor.

Normally when the har­vest is com­pleted, she takes the olives down to a medium-sized mill in Lakeland, about two hours south, to be trans­formed. However, that is not quite how the 2021 har­vest turned out.

Flanagan said she orig­i­nally planned to har­vest in October but was told by the miller in Lakeland that he would not be in Georgia that month and the har­vest would need to be fin­ished before then.

Torrential rains in late September com­pli­cated the har­vest for Flanagan and many other pro­duc­ers in Georgia. The rain made hand­pick­ing on the hilly ter­rain more dif­fi­cult and pre­vented some other pro­duc­ers from using machine har­vesters in their groves.

This past year was tough,” Flanagan said. We had to do three sep­a­rate har­vests because of the weather.”

The first har­vest occurred imme­di­ately after the rain stopped, with the pick­ers start­ing in the high grounds, from which most of the water had already drained. Once the first batch of olives was har­vested, Flanagan imme­di­ately sent them down to Lakeland to be milled in her allot­ted time slot.

Originally, she had only been given a one-time slot, but on the last day of milling oper­a­tions, she was able to squeeze in the sec­ond batch.

The third batch of olives, which was smaller than the other two, was then trans­formed in a much smaller mill, which Flanagan co-owns with a friend.

I love when things don’t go right because you learn a lot,” she said. This past year, not that things went wrong; they just did­n’t go as we planned.”

Despite these dif­fi­cul­ties, Flanagan was still able to send her field blend of Arbequina, Arbosana and Koroneiki olives to the 2022 NYIOOC World Olive Oil Competition.

She entered the world’s largest olive oil qual­ity con­test because it was one of the busi­ness goals she set at the onset of her olive oil pro­duc­tion project.

I was inter­ested in get­ting feed­back on how this was work­ing out,” she said. I also wanted to be able to give some addi­tional value to the orchard.”

After enter­ing the con­test for the first time in 2020/21 and fail­ing to receive an award, Flanagan took the notes pro­vided to her by the panel of judges into account and tri­umphed, win­ning a Gold Award at this year’s edi­tion of the con­test.

Flanagan said hers is the third NYIOOC award won by a pro­ducer from Georgia. This gives us a stronger foot­ing as a viable crop,” she said. This award ben­e­fits peo­ple inter­ested in pro­duc­ing olive oil in Georgia.”

Along with rais­ing the pro­file of Georgia olive oil, Flanagan believes these awards also help pro­mote local olive oil con­sump­tion.

There are very few peo­ple in the smaller towns, like the town I’m in, who have ever expe­ri­enced fresh olive oil,” she said.

However, Flanagan thinks the gold stick­ers sent by the NYIOOC to win­ning pro­duc­ers to place on their olive oils help the bot­tles stand out.

It’s eye-catch­ing, and peo­ple ask about it. They want infor­ma­tion about the award,” she said. It trig­gers con­ver­sa­tions and has opened some doors in places that were hes­i­tant about sell­ing the oil.”

Flanagan sells her extra vir­gin olive oil in sev­eral local stores, a coop­er­a­tive near Atlanta, another store in North Carolina, to a few local restau­rants and around the coun­try through her online store.

Flanagan fore­casts the com­ing har­vest will be just as com­pli­cated as the pre­vi­ous one after an unusu­ally warm win­ter led some of her olive trees to blos­som early. However, a sub­se­quent cold snap meant oth­ers did not blos­som until later in the spring. I think every year will be an exper­i­ment for me,” she said.

Despite its more humid cli­mate than tra­di­tional olive grow­ing loca­tions, Flanagan believes cen­tral Georgia has every­thing nec­es­sary to pro­mote olive oil pro­duc­tion and hopes to do just that.

I want more olive grow­ers of all in Georgia because I think the crop has a future,” she said. There are some dif­fer­ences. For exam­ple, peo­ple ques­tion the weather, but we’ve proven that that’s not an insur­mount­able obsta­cle.”

Overall, Flanagan believes there are far more upsides to farm­ing in Georgia than obsta­cles, from the abun­dance of water to the sense of com­mu­nity.

The price of land here is afford­able,” she said. There’s plenty of water. There’s plenty of sun. There’s a good net­work of sup­port.”

Georgia is a large state, but it’s a small state when it comes to the farm­ers,” Flanagan con­cluded. Everybody knows every­body. If you need some­thing, you pick up the phone, and some­body is right there to help you.”


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