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High Stakes in Georgia

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Georgia Olive Farms Olive Oil

It’s a slippery industry, but the folks at Georgia Olive Farms are working hard to bring homegrown olive oil to the East Coast.

Who knew? The Deep South used to harbor fields of shimmering olive trees. The Spanish missions brought them over in the 1600s. The Colonials tended them. Thomas Jefferson passed out seedlings to Southern farmers. Yet somehow, that trend never really took hold. Now roughly 99% of all olive oil consumed on the East Coast is imported. The Shaw family in Lakeland, Georgia wants to change that. We spent an afternoon talking with Jason Shaw of Georgia Olive Farms about his newfound passion: virginity (or more accurately, extra virginity!).

The Local Palate (TLP): Why did we stop growing olives in the South? I read that some late-1800s hurricanes dealt a final blow to an already dwindling crop? But why didn’t we replant?
Jason Shaw (JS): Well, when you first start wondering “What happened?” you automatically think “Civil War,” and then there was evidence of two major hurricanes, but what stopped the production of olives was, more realistically, the invention of cottonseed oil: real cheap oil, which is how we ended up with what we use today–Crisco and all that stuff. And now, obviously, people are more inclined to use healthier products, and olive oil is a popular choice when you start moving in that healthy direction.

TLP: What inspired you to try growing olives here in Georgia?
JS: I took my last two classes at UGA at a study abroad in Verona, Italy in the summer of ’96, and I traveled a while after I finished, and I saw a couple of olive milling operations and was just really intrigued, and developed an interest and a taste for good olive oil that summer. I kind of always had it in the back of my head, you know, that thought: “Why couldn’t we do this here?” It’s pretty hot and humid there, too, in the summers!

TLP: Was anyone else here experimenting with olive trees?
JS: There’s a pretty good industry forming in California in the last few years, and we (my brother Sam and my cousin Kevin) had heard about it, and on a trip out there we saw some of the olive operations and were just intrigued by it once again. And then there was a pathologist friend over on the coast here in the Brunswick/St. Simons area, Dr. Mark Hanly who grew up in Central Africa and he had a passion for olives and he had planted some traditional trees at his farm inland from the coast a little bit and he had sparked the interest of several farmers when they saw what he was doing. Even though he was not probably as committed to a commercial operation (it was more of a hobby for him), it definitely peaked a lot of interest. A group of us along with Dr. Hanly brought a grower back in 2008 from the West Coast to talk about what they were doing and what he thought our chances would be here, looking at the numbers and the climate and the soil and everything. Long story short, from that meeting we started learning more and more about it, and decided to plant trees that next spring which would have been the spring of ’09 and was our first planting.

TLP: Did people think you were nuts to try olives?
JS: Most people thought we were crazy, to be honest with you. They didn’t just come out and say it. The University of Georgia folks — that’s the first people you think of to reach out to when you’re starting something new with their Extension Service and all, and there was a guy there, and I hate to put words in his mouth, but I’ll put it this way: he was not very optimistic about our chances. But our friend from California named John Post, a really well known grower out there and a consultant, said, “Do not get frustrated about what the extension folks are gonna tell you, because ten years ago, they told us we were crazy in California, now they’ve got a whole institute on the Davis campus about olive research.” (Laughs)

TLP: Were there any nervous moments when you first planted?
JS: We went through a really, really severe January as far as the temperature, a lot of extended cold. I think our low temperature was 14 or 15 degrees, which really was a very good test for us. I mean, it scared us, to be honest, but we knew, “Hey, this is not normal, this is really cold for us!” And luckily, we survived it, and actually came through it with no problems. The trees started growing really well when it warmed up the next spring.

TLP: It took roughly two years for them to grow to a harvestable size?
JS: Right. The technique we’re using is called “super high density.” It was started in Spain a little over twenty years ago. You try to concentrate all of your fruit in a smaller area: over 600 trees to an acre, with an infrastructure trellis system. The tree grows really fast the first couple of years. There’s a lot of work involved with pruning to achieve a uniform hedgerow look, topped off around ten feet tall so that we can mechanically harvest. It actually looks like a grape vineyard as far as how uniform it is, but obviously taller and fuller.

TLP: So you planted about twenty acres, and your first harvest was in September of 2011. How did you go about turning the olives into oil?
JS: We originally had planned to bring in a mobile mill from California, and then right at the end, almost three weeks before we harvested, they sent us the contract and we couldn’t come to terms on some of the pricing that had not been disclosed in negotations, so we called our friend in Texas that had just built a mill the year before and he said “Sure, if you can get it here.”

TLP: Nice of him to help you out! He’s not a competitor in the industry?
JS: We’re all in it together. Texas has a growing industry, and it’s several years ahead of us. I think the neat thing about it is nobody really looks at each other as competitors because when you’re out here trying to tap into a market where 98 or 99% is imported, we all want to help get our own industry going. The market is there, and the market is still growing. I’ve heard it said before that olive oil is probably the largest growth market in the world.

TLP: So you drove your first harvest overnight to Texas for milling?
JS: Ideally, you want to do it within 24 hours straight from the pill to the mill. We took a lot of precautions. We actually refrigerated the olives in the field right off the harvester, then took it to a berry packing operation a few miles down the road. They call it “force air chilling” where you pull the cold air through and chill not just the fruit on the outside but the fruit in the middle. From the time we started harvesting with three harvesters going quick we had the fruit to Texas by truck in about 60 hours. We could have bought a lot of extra time, but that’s unorthodox. There’s a lot of factors to producing a quality oil, but speed from harvest to the mill is the number one factor.

TLP: Speaking of unorthodox, I hear there’s a lot of fraud in the industry, with mislabeling. Some companies have even been caught using soybean oil or sunflower oil, adding color and flavor, and selling it as extra-virgin olive oil.
JS: The USDA had been doing some research in the last couple of years, and for the first time they’ve really done some extensive testing of what is on the market now labeled as “extra virgin olive oil.” Around October of 2010, they tested basically all the major imported brands and 69% of them came back as defective and mislabeled. So it’s a dirty industry.

TLP: Australia had a big crackdown on olive oil fraud. I saw that companies were erasing the expiration dates off bottles using acetone, then stamping them with new dates to extend the shelf life by years past the original expiration date.
JS: It’s very disheartening. Obviously, olive oil doesn’t get better with age. I can tell that our own olive oil is not quite as good as it was when it was freshly milled last October. There are ways to store it where you can really buy time by keeping all the oxygen out with using nitrogen. The minute you harvest your oil the clock is ticking. So even though olive oil has a two year shelf life on the bottles, think about all the oil that is two years old before it’s even bottled.

TLP: It’s unfair to think of all those people trying to make healthy decisions by adding olive oil to their diet, only to be ingesting something expired or rancid or just plain fraudulent.
JS: Some people think that oil is oil, but olive oil, aside from the fact that it’s fresh and delicious, olive oil has health benefits. The antioxidants and the polyphenols is what makes it so healthy, and even though it does have calories, it’s a good fat, and it doesn’t have cholesterol. It’s just good for you. To be honest, if you’re looking at the difference between a good olive oil and a bad olive oil, you might as well call the bad olive oil “grease!”

TLP: So if it’s not good olive oil, you might as well be cooking with lard?
JS: Exactly!

TLP: Are you doing anything to try to combat the fraud?
JS: We joined forces with Bob Miller, he’s the President of the Australian Olive Association. He knows a lot worldwide about the fraud in the industry. He and another guy named Tom Mueller who wrote a book called Extra Virginity. Tom and Paul have formed this World Quality Alliance and it’s really making a lot of headway, not only to bring the fraud to light but also to try to get the regulators to do something about it.

TLP: In the U.S., is there still no routine testing of imported olive oil?
JS: No, but as we speak, there is a marketing order with the USDA that a lot of folks have a lot of work invested in to try to establish some really strict standards in this country. Paul has done a lot of consulting with a lot of the big growers on the West Coast on this marketing order. He testified before a Senate Committee on his last trip here, in California, along with Tom Mueller. Kevin and Sam are on that advisory board with those guys. We’re trying to ensure that all of us (along with other future producers on the East Coast) don’t have to start out with such an unlevel playing field. Basically what’s gotta happen is there’s gotta be more uniform testing and inspecting and certification. I hate to say it but we can’t wait ’til the product’s here on the shelf. We’ve got to somehow test it before it’s here.

TLP: So if I’m your average consumer staring at rows of olive oil products, how do I know what is true extra-virgin olive oil and what is fake or defective?
JS: The first thing that I would tell you to do is look at where the country of origin is on the bottle. What you’ll see when you start looking for that is that most of these oils they can’t even tell you where that is, they list a bunch of countries. It’ll say Spain, Greece, and even some South American countries. I’m not knocking any of these countries in particular, but if you can’t tell where an oil is from, chances are … (breaks into laughter).

TLP: How would you describe the taste of your oil?
JS: Our oil is a little on the delicate side, with a real fruity aroma. Some people call it buttery, but I don’t call it buttery. I just call it real pretty and fresh! It’s just very pleasing. Lots of local chefs have tried it. Dave Schneider down at Halliards on St. Simons Island just emailed me after a tasting and said, “Oil tastes great. Great texture, hint of pepper, not too bitter, long finish. It’s something our guests will love. We plan to pour straight from your bottle on whatever plate we’re finishing in front of our guests.”

TLP: I understand you’ve had a lot of interest from some famous Southern chefs. Here in Charleston, Chef Sean Brock of Husk and McCrady’s uses your olive oil but he also bought some of your olive trees, not only for his farm but for his restaurant property (he’s got olive trees growing in front and behind Husk). What other Southern chefs have reached out to you for your product?
JS: The topped two ranked restaurants in Atlanta, Bacchanalia and Restaurant Eugene are serving the oil and have us on their menu. And Empire State South in Atlanta is serving it. We just haven’t had time to get around to everybody yet. The Atlanta Grill there at the Ritz-Carlton, I took them some more this week. Everyone is just really excited, and we’re just blown away at how many people that we’re meeting in this industry and especially in this high-end local food scene. When you go to a chef, you tell the story and they taste the oil, and they’re like, “We wanna do that!” and not only do they want the product but they want to help us grow this industry by promoting us and so forth. It’s just awesome.

TLP: So your oil is in high demand?
JS: Oh yeah, yeah. It’s been overwhelming. When we first started our mail ordering system, it was right before Christmas, and there were all sorts of learning curves with packaging and labeling machines. Brand new equipment, but it doesn’t work itself, you know? (Laughs) We went through more labels trying to get the machine set up, and then we ran out of labels and had to get more printed and had an issue there. Long story short, it was a major, major dilemma. But our website guy didn’t realize we were having so many issues with the bottling and labeling. He thought we were ready to start selling on-line. An Associated Press story hit that Sunday, and all the newspapers picked up that story. We didn’t know it but the on-line ordering had been activated over the weekend. I asked my secretary Brandy to check her email, and we had had like 1,400 bottles ordered! (Belly laughs) I had to call and say, “Turn it off!” So for the next four days, we were still bottling and labeling olive oil on average ‘til about three o’clock in the morning to get all those orders filled.

TLP: And now you are marketing a blend?
JS: We sold out of our straight product. Our first harvest yielded about five tons of olives, so we had very limited production. Our consultants told us, “Look, you need to think about blending what you have left so that you can reach more customers and offer a real quality product and stretch out your brand.” I’ve got a grower friend out in California that we’ve become pretty close with. He allowed us to match the flavor profile of our straight Georgia product with one of his bins of olive oil so that we can stretch out our label until our next harvest. That offering is called our Chef’s Blend. Obviously, my first choice would be selling my straight product, but unfortunately we have to crawl before we can waddle. We’re still new at this as far as the production yields and the age of our trees and so forth.

TLP: Have you ever thought of infusing your oils?
JS: Infused olive oils are very popular now. There’s a guy up in North Georgia that’s wantin’ to buy our oil to make infused oils, but I hate to tell him, “You don’t want to infuse this oil. You’re wasting your money.” Now if I had oil left from the year before that had lost some of its freshness, that’s what you would infuse. It’s still good quality oil, but it’s just lost a little bit of its zip.

TLP: At this rate, you won’t have any leftover olive oil to sell!
JS: (Laughs) No, we won’t.

TLP: In addition to the support of local chefs, are local farmers getting on board?
JS: We’re doing a lot of planting for others. We’ve got a nursery division, and we’re doing the orchard management and consulting services for other growers. We’ve set all that up mainly so we can help grow the industry faster by supporting the other growers. My cousin Kevin is just a really, really exceptional farmer and he knows how to set crop yield records with other crops, peanuts and cotton and stuff. Some of the other growers, for one reason or another just didn’t have the same success, so that’s why some others came to us. One person in particular, we sold him the trees and he did it himself and they just didn’t do well, so he came to us the next year, and said “Hey, I want to try it again, but I just want you all to do it for me and do it right.”

TLP: And I should mention that if people want to order olive trees from you to plant themselves, anyone can. My friend Angie has some in her yard in Columbia.
JS: That’s great! We feel like that there’s a lot of land around the South that suitable for growing olive trees. We grow three types of olive trees (varieties from Greece and Spain) that have proven to be cold-hardy.

TLP: Do you envision an “olive belt” across the South?
JS: When you look at the science of it, with the climate zones and so forth, there’s a lot in common with areas in North Florida, South Georgia, and some areas in South Carolina, as well as Alabama, Mississippi, and parts of Louisiana possibly. We’ve got the Georgia Olive Growers Association that we’ve tried to promote from the beginning as a way to support other growers, and what we’re doing with that now is also expanding it to have a Southeastern Olive Growers Association. And we really want to build a processing facility—a local milling operation—that will not only service our needs and the local needs, but the needs of the entire industry that we’re trying to promote in the Southeast.

TLP: And that would provide us with a local product, which excites a lot of people.
JS: We’re really glad to be a part of this group that appreciates local food and that whole concept, but when you say “local” and you’re talking about olive oil, to us, “local” is the East Coast. Because if we’re shipping oil to New York (which we already are), we are the closest person that they could possibly think of ordering olive oil from. It’s fresh and it’s not coming over on a boat.

TLP: Is the state of Georgia excited about the prospect of this lucrative new farming industry?
JS: We’ve gotten so much support not only from our local extension but a lot of university folks. The Georgia Department of Economic Development, they’ve got a whole division called The Center for Innovation in Agribusiness. And that’s what they’re all about is helping promote people who are thinking outside the box with agriculture. Donnie Smith is the director of that organization. It’s like when the Washington Post came down during our early phases and did a big story, that would never have happened if it weren’t for the Ag Innovation folks and their contacts. Our commissioner here Gary Black in Georgia is one of our biggest fans. Even the governor–every time I see him, he says, “How are the olives?” You know, everybody wants to see this work. And then we’ve even had support from the folks at Emory University in Atlanta, because they’ve got a whole division about local foods and sustainability. We did a big tasting event there. It’s just amazing the support we’ve had. We wouldn’t be where we are without it.

TLP: And you’ll be getting a lot more love with the next harvest!
JS: Yea, we’ve just gotta get to where we make enough money to pay for all this stuff! (Laughs).