Thomas Jefferson first introduced olive trees to Georgia, back in the 1700's—centuries later, Southern olive oil is becoming a thing. (A very good thing.)
To be completely honest, I'd come to the wilds of southwest Georgia looking for cheese. Knowing that there was an award-winning producer down here, somewhere, was exciting enough, and then someone had to go and tell me about the olive oil. "You know," said my lunch date in Atlanta, "there's a guy making olive oil down there, and it's really good." Georgia, the next Italy. What the hell—why not?
Top-notch New World olive oils are nothing new; these days, you can get a very good bottle of cold-pressed, California extra-virgin at Walmart, for less than ten dollars—who knows why Americans are still bothering with cheap olive oils of sketchy provenance, shipped from overseas. It's a mystery.
But Georgia? Apparently, yes—a group of enterprising gentlemen from a family of longtime farmers decided to take the leap a few years back, creating Georgia Olive Farms, producing oils that are flying off the shelves in fancy shops around the region, oils that top Southern chefs like Sean Brock and Linton Hopkins can't get enough of. Mostly, I just wanted to see what an olive grove in the subtropics might look like. The rest was just a bonus.
First, however, I had to find the place. Apparently located in the last corner of the free world you cannot get to using your GPS, I was told to "meet them at the farm," as if I knew exactly where that was.
Using the town of Lakeland—their address, from what I could gather—as my destination, I hopped off Interstate 75, hours after leaving Atlanta, disappearing into what felt like nowhere, driving past cotton fields, pecan groves, through stands of tall pine, past very large properties with very small houses, past an old country store, and, apparently, entirely off the grid.
The one number I had, in case I got lost, was now entirely useless. Oh well, shouldn't have worried, I thought, rolling into town, where a very official-looking sign had been posted by Georgia Agritourism, announcing the place. GEORGIA OLIVE FARMS, it shouted. An arrow pointed straight ahead, to a one-story, cinder block building that appears to at one point have been the home of a tasting room. The sign out front still stood; the building was very empty. I rolled into town, hoping for a whiff of cell reception.
No such luck. After driving the length of the tiny town of Lakeland, which took exactly a minute, I repaired to the abandoned tasting room, hoping for clues. None. I drove back into town, eventually realizing I could steal free wireless internet at the local McDonald's, one of just a few thriving businesses on the main drag—hopefully, the number I had belonged to someone with an iPhone, an iPhone with the messaging feature enabled. I sent a text, thoroughly embarrassed.
After what seemed like ages, Kevin Shaw, one of the handful of Shaw brothers behind the farm project, sent me one of those classic "cross three bridges, then make a left by the place that used to be the thing it isn't anymore" sets of directions—I think I understood at least half of the things he said, and it turned out that this was enough to get me there.
Driving down the dirt track from the main road, directly at sunset, I felt like I was somewhere in California—the sun, a giant ball of orange in an entirely clear sky, was just disappearing behind the olive groves. It was a gorgeous sight, a sight you don't come to this part of the world looking for, but what do I know—turns out, Georgia and olive trees go back, way back, to the 1700's, when Thomas Jefferson first tried to make olives happen here.
At the top of the driveway, Kevin emerged from his pickup truck, apologetic on behalf of the local cellular network. "Sorry, man—we just got 911 out here," he drawled. No matter—I'd made it. I could see a giant contraption that looked like a press on a covered patio, next to a corrugated metal shed. They were honest-to-goodness producing olive oil out here. The small amount of hassle in getting here? Worth it. And besides, my struggle paled in comparison to what these guys must have to put up with, trying to do Mediterranean things in a decidedly non-Mediterranean climate. How, exactly, are they pulling it off?
Not easily, that's for sure, but apparently rather successfully—they've been at it for roughly a decade now, and have yet to give up.
"The weather is a challenge, but the tree itself is extremely hardy," Shaw tells me. "We have a lot more humidity than the Mediterranean, we have more rainfall. Every winter, the temperatures have gone down to near-mortality levels; we had a tornado come through one time—that blew a lot of the flowers down."
And then there was 2017's hurricane season—punishing, to say the least. Where some might have thrown up their hands and tried something else, the Shaws have persisted—farming runs in the family, after all; his grandparents grew pretty much everything here—some of the land has been in the family since the 1860's.
In the beginning, and still today, the olive oil production is still something of a boutique novelty, part of a much larger farming operation that includes more typically Georgia things like cotton, and peanuts; today, there are about 30,000 trees, primarily Arbequina—this isn't a whole lot, compared to the giant-sized operations in places like California and Chile. The whole thing started with consulting various experts and advisors; one had consulted on a project in Uruguay, which has a similarly humid climate.
The first harvest took place a couple of years after the first planting—a crew of Italians came over and spent ten days installing the rather magnificent Alfa Laval press. Very quickly, chefs and regional media began to catch wind of what was going on over here; so far, their biggest year was about 1,000 gallons, all in—a small enough amount that most of what you'll find on the market today is a blend of the local oil and other good stuff pulled in from other American producers; bottles of 100% Georgia Arbequina are sold, but tend to be spoken for, long before they make it out of the barn.
The good news is, both products happen to be extremely good—the oil is bright, grassy, beautifully green, buttery smooth, with a bite of black pepper; it's absolutely everything you want out of an American olive oil, and though the blend sells for a rather princely $30 or so per 500 ml bottle, you really should try to get your hands on some. If you can't, you can always go to Husk and ask nicely. They are, I am told, still buying a ton of the stuff.