Virgin Harvest - Features - Atlanta Magazine

Virgin Harvest

A group of South Georgia farmers is rolling the dice on a crop straight out of the Bible—olive trees. Will gourmet olive oil be far behind?

Photograph by Jamey Guy

On a soggy Autumn morning, Jason Shaw was standing in a sandy field and considering the irony of his new calling as a missionary of Southern olives. “The first olive I ever saw was in a martini,” he joked. He was barely exaggerating. Jason grew up in South Georgia during the 1970s and 1980s, a time and place where olive oil seemed almost alien. “We used to have hog killings, and we’d end up with a big container of lard in the laundry room that my mom cooked with.”

Jason’s family is trying to do something that Thomas Jefferson himself dreamed of but was unable to accomplish: grow olives in the South. Instead of the usual row crops—corn, cotton, peanuts—the field was lined with green-and-silver-leafed olive trees. “This,” he said, “is the first commercial crop of olives east of the Mississippi since the 1800s.”

Jason, a jovial thirty-nine-year-old insurance man with a moon face and boyish bangs, is part of a co-op called Georgia Olive Farms that includes his brother, a cousin, and a family friend. In the past three years, they’ve planted twenty-eight acres of olive trees outside Lakeland, near Valdosta, with the intention of making their own oil and marketing seedlings to other farmers in what they envision as an olive belt across the Deep South. On the final day of their first harvest, in late September, the partners invited journalists and other interested parties to their orchard for a kind of coming-out party for Georgia olives.

And then the rain came. Jason and a TV reporter in green mud boots huddled under a couple of golf umbrellas and tried to tape an interview in the downpour. “We’re not looking to be the biggest olive producers,” he said, wet hair dripping down his forehead. “We just want to get olives started in the Southeast.” A few minutes later, he and his cousin had to push the reporter’s car out of the muck, a chore that probably doesn’t come up very often in the drier lands usually associated with olives.

If the co-op succeeds, it will tap into a booming $1.7 billion domestic market. In the past two decades, Americans have more than doubled their consumption of olive oil, an essential ingredient of the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet. Like wine and coffee, it has developed a following of connoisseurs who talk about flavor notes and terroir and are willing to pay as much as $50 a bottle for artisanal products. Williams-Sonoma offers a tiny two-ounce bottle, elaborately packaged with shiny black ribbon and flavored with white truffles, for $89.50. Could a Southern oil run with such a crowd? The Shaws had to get the fruit out of the field to find out.

Their trees were planted in closely spaced ranks that looked more like hedgerows than postcard images of ancient specimens in Greece or Italy. They were pruned on the sides and topped at about ten feet to facilitate mechanized picking. Blueberry harvesters as large as RVs motored right over them, allowing the trees to pass through an opening beneath the driver’s platform. Sam Shaw, Jason’s thirty-six-year-old brother, a bank president in nearby Homerville, took the wheel of one of the behemoths. “This is my stress relief,” he said, looking over the field from his lofty perch. “Banking’s been kind of tough lately.”

Beneath him, attachments thrashed the branches like the arms of a car wash, sending olives onto a conveyor belt that dumped them into crates. The fruit was green and burgundy and resembled undersized grapes. A young woman who had come with a group of students from Okefenokee Tech popped one in her mouth. Her face soured. Fresh olives may look sweet, but they taste as bitter as a pulverized aspirin, which is why they have to be pressed into oil or cured with brine to be palatable.

Among the spectators were several blueberry farmers curious about whether olives could become the next big thing. Blueberries, the last big thing, have surpassed peaches among Georgia’s most valuable fruit crops, and some of the growers want to plant olives or at least lease out their harvesters to pick them. Another onlooker had driven up from that other Lakeland, in Florida, looking for something to replace the citrus he’d lost in a freeze.

“You wouldn’t believe the interest we’ve had in this,” said Jason, who naturally became the public face of the enterprise given that his other job is state representative. “I couldn’t go anywhere during the campaign that someone didn’t ask me about olives. And I’d say, ‘I’m glad you asked,’ because it’s more fun to talk about olives than politics."

>> GALLERY: View photos of the olive farms in operation

The vision for Georgia Olive Farms began in 1996, when Jason took a two-month study trip to Italy as a senior at the University of Georgia. Acquiring a taste for olive oil was the only way he could enjoy a salad. “They don’t do ranch and blue cheese,” he said. “It’s oil and vinegar or nothing.” During a visit to an olive mill in Verona, he started wondering whether the trees that adorned the Italian hillsides would grow in the flat fields back home. What he didn’t know was that they already had.

Olive trees are native to the Middle East and the Mediterranean basin, where they can live for hundreds of years, twisting their branches into dramatic contours. They first appeared in Georgia when the Spanish planted them at their missions along the coast in the 1600s. The English tried to cultivate them after Oglethorpe founded Savannah in 1733, but with little success. Jefferson encountered olives as minister to France and was so delighted that he had 500 seedlings shipped to Charleston in hopes of establishing a crop. “This is the most interesting plant in the world for South Carolina and Georgia,” he wrote in 1788. Twenty-five years later, he lamented what had become of his efforts: “If any of [the trees] still exist, it is merely as a curiosity in their gardens; not a single orchard of them has been planted.”

Olives made little headway in the South for several reasons. Many varieties simply didn’t take to the damp climate. Hurricanes destroyed others, and the Civil War devastated the coastal plantations that had experimented with the crop. The market played a role as well; there wasn’t much call for another cooking oil in a region swimming in pork fat and cottonseeds, the main component of shortenings like Crisco (short for “crystallized cottonseed oil”).

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  1. Betty Willis posted on 02/17/2012 12:11 PM
    This was such an interesting article! My family uses olive oil for dressing as well as sauteing. and to think this is taking place only about 25 miles from where we live..My husband drove over this a.m. and looked at it..We're so proud of the Shaws!! We're going over in the fall when they're harvesting..
  2. Jordan posted on 03/11/2012 03:36 PM
    Visionary entrepreneurship, with balls and money. Good luck to you guys (from a transplanted Yankee). I hope you can come out with a quality product that the average person can afford.
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