Breaking U.S. Dependence on Foreign (Olive) Oil

Spend a while driving around south Georgia’s farm fields, and you begin to recognize crops by color.

The low, corduroy rows of medium green: soybeans. Carved banks covered with clay-dusted orbs: peanuts, plucked out of the earth to dry. Pale-green and branchy: rabbit-eye blueberry. Dark leaves and white flowers: cotton before the bolls form. 

A few weeks ago, close to the Florida border, I spotted an unfamiliar hue out the window: behind a cotton field, a ripple of silver-green. The shrubs were rounded and tall, holding up narrow, widely spaced leaves. I got out of the car to crunch across the bright sandy loam, and spotted clusters of small round fruits, some lighter than the leaves, others a rich dark brown. A faint scent, dusty and citrusy, coasted on the hot breeze.

I had found the first commercial olive farm established east of the Mississippi in 200 years.

Georgia Olive Farms—for now, a patch of 50 acres east of Lakeland, Ga.—is a family business stretched across several families. The owners are Jason Shaw and his brother Sam; their cousin on one side Kevin Shaw; and a friend from up the road, Berrien Sutton. Their cousin on the other side, Vicki Shaw Hughes, provides marketing help. The inspiration came from Jason’s long-ago college year abroad, which sent him from the University of Georgia to Verona. The impetus to recreate Jason’s Mediterranean experience came almost two decades later when Kevin—already a farmer growing cotton, peanuts and corn on land that came down from their grandparents—wanted to find another crop to balance boom-and-bust crop prices.

“I started looking at blueberries, and Sam, who is also a banker—probably 70 percent of the revenue in his bank is blueberry money—he said, ‘I just don’t think we need to get into blueberries, because so many people are getting into it already,’” Kevin Shaw reminisced. We were sitting in an open-sided shed attached to the olive-oil milling plant; outside its shade, it was 95 degrees. “So Jason remembered his Italy experience, and we thought this land might work because it drains well, and in 2009 we planted our first trees, little 14-inch whips.”

Photo of olive harvest.

Photograph by Vicki Hughes/Georgia Olive Farms

Kevin is tall, tanned and lanky, wearing Blundstone boots and a silver ponytail. Decades in the blistering sun have given him macular degeneration, so he wears wraparound sunglasses most of the time. When he walks me over to the trees—planted intensively, 600 or more to an acre, on trellises of wire and bamboo—I see how well those first slips, imported from California, have done. The 5-year-olds are far taller than I am; the rows stair-step down in year groups to the newest additions, which have the tippy fragility of Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree.

There are olive fruits on even the smallest trees, and heavy clusters on the mature ones. The trees are Arbequina and Arbosana, Spanish varieties, and Koroneiki, a Greek one, intermixed for diversity and flavor and for their ability to attract pollinators. The group waited two years to make their first harvest. In late 2011, they pulled the fruits off the trees and stuffed them into a refrigerated truck. To begin to qualify for prized extra-virgin oil status, the olives needed to be crushed with in 24 hours—and the closest mill was in Texas, an overnight drive away.

Three years later, the group now have their own mill, a long steel concatenation of vats and tubes that was assembled onsite by a crew of Italians and a Chilean master miller. The olives’ trip through the machinery begins outside in the shed, where they are weighed, washed and crushed. The coarse paste is pumped through the wall, ground again, centrifuged, and pumped into a third room to rest and settle in giant wall-hung tanks.

After a month of rest, called racking, the oil is siphoned out and bottled. Georgia Olive Farms sells a Chef’s Blend, and as a boutique product, straight Arbequina, both cold-pressed and unfiltered, both certified extra-virgin. The blend is grassy and herbal, peppery after a moment, with a tickle of acid. The arbequina is like melted butter with an aftertaste of spice and earth.

The arbequina is entirely theirs, but for now, the Chef’s Blend is a cross-country mix, 20 percent from Georgia and 80 percent from California. They hope soon to see enough olives grown locally that their blend can be entirely southeastern: the founding of Georgia Olive Farms sparked a boom in olive growing all along the Georgia-Florida line. Vicki Hughes, the fourth cousin, actually works for a nascent organization called the Georgia Olive Growers Association, who collectively have put 430 acres into olives, with another 210 being planted next year. Georgia Olive Farms’ mill has the capacity to handle all of them.

Photo of an olive farm.

Photograph by Vicki Hughes/Georgia Olive Farms

“These guys have created an industry where there was none,” she said. “Growers around here have wanted a new second crop for a long time, and now they can grow and sell to this mill, be part of this label. It’s a whole new economy.”

That “new” part contains challenges. The partners in Georgia Olive Farms face all the uncertainties of farming—this year, most of south Georgia was parched for rain—without any of the subsidies that flow to growers of the big crops. There is as yet no state support for olive farming, because the sector is too small. Next week, the partners will host a conference for other local growers, introducing them to funding experts and to big producers’ groups from long-planted California and Texas.

There will be a hidden irony in that meeting: Though California dominates US oil production, Georgia was where US olive growing began. Franciscan friars brought olives to California in the 1760s, but Spanish missions were established on Georgia’s barrier islands in the 1580s, and when Gen. James Oglethorpe founded the Georgia Colony in 1733, his troops found olive trees already growing there. Changes in land ownership, followed by the devastation of the Civil War, ended olive cultivation in Georgia. The Shaws’ venture brings that lost history back to life again.

“There are olive trees out here that are 200, 300 years old,” Kevin Shaw said. “Every once in a while someone will find one, and they don’t know what it is, except it’s got this strange bitter fruit. But now they’ll know.”

 

Watch as Kevin Shaw gives me a quick tour of Georgia Olive Farms

 

Georgia Olive Farms’ oils are available online and in a small number of retail outlets; the group also sells olive trees. The farm, which is 4 hours south of Atlanta and 2 hours north of Jacksonville, is open to visitors by pre-arrangement:

This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month Future of Food series.