When you think of Georgia agriculture, peanuts, pecans and peaches typically come to mind, but Jason Shaw, co-owner of Georgia Olive Farms in Lakeland, wants to add olive oil to that list. Shaw and his partners embarked on a mission to resurrect production of the oil with olive production in south Georgia.
Shaw’s company was the first in the Southeast to produce culinary olive oil.
“I had a chance to study abroad in Italy in the mid ’90s, so I learned to appreciate good olive oil,” Shaw says. “I knew we had serious issues here in the U.S. with a fresh product not making it to the grocery shelves and restaurants. Then, seeing how the California olive oil industry was blossoming, we decided to try olives in Georgia.”
Shaw says a little-known fact is that olives are as native to Georgia as peaches or peanuts.
“There’s a history of olive farming on the Georgia coast dating back to the early Spanish settlers, but the last recorded information about olive farming was in the 18th century and into the mid-19th century. The cottonseed oil industry replaced olive farming,” Shaw says, adding that he suspects the Civil War and hurricanes played a major role in the industry’s hiatus.
Shaw and company planted their first olive trees in 2009 and now own or manage more than 24,000 trees. Since it takes five years for trees to mature, the company sought out additional growers, even selling trees to new growers and offering turn-key grove installation services. In 2013, the farm completed construction on its first commercial processing plant.
“We’re working with a lot of new growers. The industry has been jump-started since we opened the new mill last year,” he says.
Georgia Olive Farms uses super high-density production. Where conventional production groves plant 100 to 150 trees per acre, high-density groves plant 500 to 700 trees per acre.
The technique was developed by Spanish growers to help increase production and is used by groves in California, Texas and Florida. Georgia Olive Farms also uses mechanical harvesting methods, decreasing the time between when the fruit is picked and when it enters the mill. Shaw says this process is key to the company’s superior quality product.
“What really put us on the map was our chef customers like Linton Hopkins in Atlanta and Hugh Acheson in Athens who jumped on board to what we were doing and really supported us,” Shaw says.
Clay Oliver of Oliver Farm in Pitts says if it weren’t for the support of local chefs, he might not be in business. Oliver produces sunflower, pecan and peanut oils. “I got some really lucky breaks right off the bat,” Oliver says. “People put me in touch with Chef Steven Satterfield, executive chef and co-owner of Miller Union in Atlanta. He is a huge proponent of farm-to-table, and he’s shared the oil among his circle of friends and people he meets, and they’ve begun using the oil.”
Oliver started making food grade oil in 2013. He says local support and culinary oil expertise from professional olive oil taster, olive researcher and Georgia Grown member Mary Squires and Strippaggio specialty foods owner and founder Celia Tully were fundamental to his learning how to profile culinary oils.
“Understanding oil flavor profiling from Mary and having my product available for retail at Strippaggio’s Atlanta location, right next to some of the finest U.S. olive oils, has complemented the word-of- mouth marketing among local chefs,” he says.
Oliver says the Georgia Grown program and the farm-to-table movement have made that leap of faith a little less daunting.
“The Department of Agriculture has been a tremendous help,” he says. “I know I wouldn’t be as far along as I am without the Georgia Grown program. The biggest help to me is networking – that’s where I’ve come in contact with three-fourths of my customer base is through Georgia Grown events.”
A major advantage of the culinary oil production industry is it opens up an additional market for growers. And that’s exactly what Robert Davis, president and CEO of canola oil producer Hart AgStrong set out to do.
The Bowerville company works with about 250 canola growers across the Southeast and processes nearly 50 tons of canola each day.
“We started as a company with a goal to strengthen family farmers and help new farmers get established. Our efforts to strengthen family farmers connected us to northeast Georgia where there had been a decline in agriculture, but there was a strong history in agriculture. So we saw our role as providing a good crop that could be profitable and low risk for farmers,” Davis says.
Davis says canola is a good rotational crop because Georgia’s mild climate, ample rainfall and rich soil allow it to grow into the winter to produce a profitable yield.
“I think culinary oil is an excellent additional source of income for farmers,” he says. “It also allows food companies and restaurants to support locally grown products that can lead to better quality of their foods.”