` Origins of Georgia’s Newborn Olive Oil Industry - Olive Oil Times

Origins of Georgia’s Newborn Olive Oil Industry

Oct. 31, 2012
Nancy Flagg

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Sam Shaw (left) har­vest­ing olives at Georgia Olive Farms

How Georgia’s olive oil indus­try got its start is an inter­est­ing tale of par­al­lel paths towards the same goal. On one path, Georgia State Legislator Mary Squires was look­ing for ways to improve the Peach State’s agri­cul­tural base and set about research­ing the via­bil­ity of grow­ing olives. On another path, a few Georgia farm­ers were look­ing for a new crop to sup­ple­ment their blue­berry busi­ness and had a notion to plant olive trees.

There may have been cross-pol­li­na­tion of the two paths or it may have been just the per­fect con­ver­gence of eco­nomic and cli­mate con­di­tions that resulted in the begin­ning of Georgia’s new olive oil industry.

In 2000, Georgia was expe­ri­enc­ing a severe drought. The Senate Natural Resources and the Environment Committee was study­ing aquifer water sources and went on a field trip to south­west Georgia farm­lands. Committee mem­ber Mary Squires met grow­ers who attrib­uted low crop yields not only to the drought but also to cli­mate change.

When one farmer remarked that they needed to find a crop resis­tant to cli­mate change, Squires’ research gene was acti­vated. As a for­mer war­fare spe­cial­ist in the Georgia Army National Guard, she had con­ducted many ground­wa­ter, air, tem­per­a­ture and soil stud­ies. She dusted off” her old research, plot­ted Georgia’s cli­mate, soil and water data and started look­ing for crops that grow under those conditions.

Mary Squires

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She real­ized that Georgia’s cli­mate resem­bled a Mediterranean envi­ron­ment and she added olives to her list of pos­si­ble crops. On a visit to the Savannah Trustees’ Garden, the country’s first pub­lic exper­i­men­tal farm oper­ated from 1733 to 1748, she noticed a plaque con­firm­ing that olives were once grown at the site.

Squires con­nected with a peach hor­ti­cul­tur­al­ist from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and shared her olive dis­cov­ery. The researcher indi­cated that there had been no vari­etal tri­als of olives con­ducted in the region since Thomas Jefferson’s efforts.

In 1791, Jefferson acquired olive tree seedlings from Europe and sent them to South Carolina for plant­ing. He said that among plants, olives con­tribute the most to the hap­pi­ness of mankind.” Unfortunately, the trees did not thrive and the exper­i­ment ended.

The USDA researcher stud­ied his­tor­i­cal records and con­cluded that the olive tree fail­ure was due to cold tem­per­a­tures and to using the wrong cul­ti­vars. Further, she obtained data indi­cat­ing that there were 14 vari­etals that could poten­tially grow in Georgia and she pro­posed plant­ing one of each vari­etal as a test.

Squires asked for a cost esti­mate and a for­mal research pro­posal that she could use to acquire pri­vate fund­ing for the project. In 2007, the project was funded and the trees were planted in a greenhouse.

In 2008, the econ­omy col­lapsed, jobs were lost and the researcher found a posi­tion else­where. The trees were left untended and died. Squires was dev­as­tated by the loss and says her involve­ment in olive research died in the ground in 2008.”

Her efforts instead turned to pro­mot­ing the Georgia and U.S. olive indus­try wher­ever she went and she became a poster girl for olives.”

Meanwhile Shawn Davis, a Georgia blue­berry farmer, had con­sulted with the same USDA hor­ti­cul­tur­ist as Squires. Davis was pre­dict­ing blue­berry crop sur­pluses and wanted to branch into new crops. In 2007, he decided on olives and planted 14 acres, reported Jennifer Paire and Curt Harler (Growing Magazine, Feb 2011). Davis became one of the founders of the George Olive Growers Association.

Jason Shaw

About the same time, the Shaw fam­ily decided to exper­i­ment with grow­ing olives. Jason Shaw, now a Georgia State Representative, says that he and his brother Sam were always inter­ested in inno­va­tion” on their farm. They con­sulted with John Post, an agri­cul­tural advi­sor from California, and with the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension to deter­mine if olives could grow in their part of the State, near Lakeland.

They were encour­aged to give it a try and installed super high den­sity trees that could be picked by the same machines they used for har­vest­ing their blue­berry crop. We had the cold­est win­ter on record,” says Shaw, but the trees came through OK. ” They con­sid­ered it a good test.

In 2009, Jason, Sam, their cousin Kevin and friend Berrien Sutton formed the coop­er­a­tive Georgia Olive Farms. Their first har­vest, and the state’s first com­mer­cial har­vest in sev­eral cen­turies, took place in late 2011.

Olive con­sul­tant Nancy Ash con­ducted a taste test and called the extra vir­gin olive oil sweet, smooth and soft,” and Australian expert Paul Miller also gave the oil a pos­i­tive review, reported Jim Auchmutey in last Atlanta magazine.

Shaw says that they have received great press and much sup­port for their efforts from many cor­ners, with the food indus­try and chefs being par­tic­u­larly supportive.

Georgia Olive Farms is adding acreage and is not yet at full pro­duc­tion, Shaw indi­cated. He added that they bought a small mill and did their first olive oil milling this year.

The coop­er­a­tive own­ers want to help build the Georgia olive indus­try and are offer­ing their assis­tance to other farm­ers. They will arrange for the pur­chase of Arbequina, Koroneiki and Arbosana trees and help with ini­tial olive farm man­age­ment, but they warn farm­ers that get­ting into the indus­try is still risky.

Sam and Jason Shaw

Shaw notes that there are a few farm­ers adding olives to their orchards, but most are wait­ing to see if Georgia Olive Farms has another good crop year. All eyes are on us,” explains Shaw. He believes that if the crop is good, there will be a big jump in farmer interest.

Co-owner Berrien Sutton thinks the lack of mills has lim­ited plant­i­ngs by other farm­ers, but Georgia Olive Farms will be estab­lish­ing a pro­cess­ing cen­ter that will help other grow­ers get started. He expects that by 2015, there will be six more orchards in Georgia in full pro­duc­tion. By 2018, he expects 2,000 acres to be planted with expo­nen­tial growth” after that.

If Sutton’s pre­dic­tions prove right, Georgia is on the brink of a major new indus­try. Although Mary Squires’ exper­i­men­tal olive trees died years ago, her dream was real­ized by the Georgia farm­ers who had their own inno­v­a­tive and intre­pid dreams. As a result, today there is olive oil in Georgia.


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