Concept has potential but also pitfalls

At first blush, blueberries and olives seem to be strange bedfellows, but blueberry growers and, increasingly, people from different walks of life in southern Georgia are looking at olives as a new crop to offset a market awash in blueberries.

Pomologist John Post inspects a super high-density olive system in California, where most of the olive oil in the United States is produced. Post is a grower and international consultant working with olive growers in Georgia and Florida.

Some people might see merging olives and blueberries as an odd blending. However, in this case, a number of issues from soil types to equipment show that the merging of olive production and blueberry production might just catch on.

“There’s a lot of good quality, good quantity, and the pricing is off a little bit because of the quantity,” says blueberry grower George Hughes of Hughes Berries, Inc. in Homerville, Ga., of the current big harvest. “I’d consider growing [olives] as a secondary crop. Olives are harvested in the fall, which is our time off for blueberries. There are a lot of what ifs to it, but we’re watching it.”

From California With Love

California’s olive growers have mastered a high-density crop that lacks traditional labor costs, but the country’s largest-producing state hasn’t overcome the dominance of imported oil. Of the 80 million gallons of olive oil Americans will consume this year, growers hope to provide around 800,000 gallons.

“In California, Georgia and Florida, we need to produce more volume or no one will take us seriously,” says John Post, pomologist and consultant with Agricultural Advisors, Inc., Live Oak, Calif. Post is working with southeastern farmers to develop new orchards primarily for olive oil.

Growers in Georgia are reporting their first blooms and fruit on olive trees from high-density varieties. Post says there are enough similarities between the climate and soil here and in established markets to make the investment worthwhile.

For example, olive trees prefer poor soil.

“We want to be able to stress these trees to control vigor and increase oil quality, so you don’t want high-fertility soils,” he says. Poorer soil helps control tree growth as well, keeping the trees small enough to use commercial harvesters from other crops such as grapes.

Weather in Georgia and Florida challenges olive crops in different ways. While warm weather is the challenge in Florida, Georgia’s cold and freezing conditions had growers concerned this year. Rain is a wild card, and disease is a concern, although copper hydroxide fungicide is likely the solution, Post says. Copper hydroxide will combat problems like peacock spot fungus and olive knot disease during the growing season.

As Post speaks, birds chirp and a breeze whistles in the background. He is in the largest high-density orchard in the country, owned by California Olive Ranch. The scene is rolling hills and tightly knit trees; there’s not a house in sight.

“What I’ve seen is conducive to olive growing as long as you have plenty of water and the winter weather is not too harsh,” says Post, who consults on about 11,000 olive acres worldwide and who holds part ownership in orchards in the United States and Uruguay. “If we bring the crop here under irrigated conditions, we can get consistent yields.”

Nobody in Georgia wants to dive whole-heartedly into olives, but with blueberry production up more than 20 percent since 2008 – and prices slipping accordingly – several growers see this as a good time either to branch out to another crop or to leverage existing equipment to get more out of their machinery.

Growers watched Georgia’s blueberry acreage grow rapidly between 2006 and 2008. They expect this year’s harvest to produce about 50 million gallons of blueberries, up from 41 million gallons in 2008.

“We saw the abundance of blueberries being put in, and it’s a good business, but at some point there’s going to be a cap,” says Shawn Davis, an Alma, Ga., blueberry grower and a founder of the Georgia Olive Growers Association. A leader in the charge to find a new growth market, he encountered olives and olive oil over and over again.

About 99 percent of the olive oil consumed here is imported.

California is the largest producer of olive oil in the United States, contributing about 1 percent of it consumed here. The remainder of the market is supplied by imports, making southeastern producers hopeful that consumers here will appreciate a local alternative. Fresh market olives are commodity with an “up and down market.”

“There’s a good bit of oil out there,” says Davis, who has traveled to California and Texas to see other successful orchards. “But as far as domestic oil, there’s not any.”

South Georgia olive trees have blossoms, and more-established orchards, like the 20-acre super high-density variety Davis planted, are bearing fruit. He expects a small harvest in the fall.

Statewide, about 200 acres have been installed, with another 100 being discussed this year, says Douglas Kleweno, director of the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service in Athens, Ga.

Olives in Georgia?

Georgia growers, in particular, are encouraged by the blossoming season, which follows a harsh winter. They seem to plow right through the questions that arise about how olives will be produced in the Southeast.

This 16-acre olive orchard in Lakeland, Ga., was built by Sam Shaw and his family a year ago, and the bushes are producing blossoms.
  • Soil: Olive trees like sandy soil, and consultants say the less fertile it is, the better for growth control.
  • Weather: Whether it is too cold in Georgia or too hot in Florida, newer varieties respond heartily to more extreme weather conditions.
  • Time to market: Super high-density varieties, such as Spanish native Arbequina, mature faster than traditional varieties, shaving a few years off the process.
  • Equipment equity: The dwarf varieties grow in smaller systems that farmers believe would allow them to use existing equipment for harvests. This has been done successfully with grape harvesting equipment.
  • Diseases and insects: Growers are still learning how these may impact olives. They do hope copper-based fungicides will mitigate humid conditions.

The potential

“This is the first time you can get the labor cost out of growing olives,” says John Post of Agricultural Advisors, Inc. in Live Oak, Calif. Post is a pomologist, olive grower and international consultant who is working with growers in Georgia and Florida.

By his calculations, growers using grape harvesters with dwarf varietals can harvest olives at a cost of $350 an acre. With traditional crops that are hand-harvested, the cost can be $1,500 an acre.

If Georgia growers receive $15 to $16 per gallon of olive oil, the net per acre can range from $1,000 to $3,000.

Preparing the soil, installing trellises, planting trees and other setup costs run about $4,500 per acre in California. “I think Georgia will try to get a specialty marketplace price first, because there’s not much oil there,” Post says. “In California, we are producing so much here now that it’s more of a commodity.”

Shaw works with farmers, and in researching alternative crops for local blueberry farmers he became excited about the potential for domestic olive oil production.

A month-by-month approach

Pierce County Extension Agent James Jacobs, who has watched the olive movement from inception, is a voice of reason amid the excitement. “I’m using a lot of caution,” Jacobs says. “We’re basically taking it month-by-month. We’ll go through one season and then we’ll have to discuss what we actually saw. We’re learning as we go. This is the first time we’ve seen these little olives on these trees.

“What’s going to attack these? In the south Georgia environment, we know we have a lot of pests. What we don’t know is what all of this is going to mean to an olive tree. It’s going to take a lot of learning and the growers are aware of that.”

The growers’ innovation has attracted the interest of many who want to know more about the potential of olives.

“The original interest came from blueberry growers, and in the last year and a half I’ve had calls from business people, homeowners, land owners,” Jacobs says. “The calls didn’t pertain to one occupation.”

Blueberry Grower Presses Toward Olives

Shawn Davis is known as the blueberry farmer who got the olive rolling in southern Georgia.

Davis, who farms more than 500 acres of blueberries in Alma, Ga., researched alternative crops in 2007 when he saw the abundance of blueberry bushes being planted. Everywhere he looked he saw olives and, most importantly, olive oil.

As a planner and planter, he installed 14 acres of olive trees, promoted the olive’s potential and installed a pressing operation in preparation for an olive crop.

And while olives are still the talk, Davis has developed a blueberry juice drink with his press that he hopes will pump new excitement into the South’s blueberry industry. Davis’ Southern Press & Packing was ready to ship its additive-free juice, Regenerate, in May, and like olive oil, it is expected to appeal to the health-conscious consumer.

“Our plan is to go to the marketplace with our blueberry juice and we want to be able to follow the market distribution and plan for our Southeast olives from Georgia,” says Davis, who is also a distributor of olive trees from California via his nursery, Southeast Bark & Blueberry Farms.

“What you don’t realize when you are bringing something new like olives into the farming world is you have to have all the pieces of the pie: the plants, the presses, the marketing. It’s overwhelming, but we’ve tried to incorporate every piece to bring it full circle.”

With about 20 acres of super high-density olives in the ground, Davis is ready to see what happens with the fall harvest, although a large harvest could still be a few years away.

“We’ve got olives on the trees, a lot of blooms and it looks great,” he says of the orchard that has grown to 20 acres. “There’s not a whole lot we can do to speed that up and we’ve had two harsh winters. For us, it looks like it’s all downhill from here. If it goes like we think it will go it will be the next blueberry.”

Davis and Dr. M. G. Hanly created the Georgia Olive Growers Association in 2008. Hanly has grown olives successfully in Appling County, Ga., since 2004.

Getting on board

Introducing olives to south Georgia intrigued Sam Shaw and his family enough to build a 16-acre orchard in Lakeland, Ga. Shaw is vice president and loan officer for Farmers & Merchants Bank, and he understands how crucial it is for his blueberry-growing clients to locate their next crop.

“This year the price [of blueberries] dropped so quickly we needed to find something else to get into,” says Shaw, who is also the secretary for the Georgia Olive Growers Association. “The market is flooded and I want to help them make a living. You’ve got the land and you have to pay taxes on it. You need to find something to make money.”

Post is working closely as a consultant with Shaw and his partners. He shares orchard ownership with his brother Jason, an insurance agent, and his cousin Kevin, a row crop farmer of about 2,000 acres whose crops have included cotton, soybeans and corn.

The Shaws’ orchard has been in place for a year and has bloomed. Additionally, the Shaws are three of five founding members of Georgia Olive Farms, a co-op formed to process and market olive oil and to offer consulting and grove management services to farmers and investors. The co-op is also an olive plant distributor for Gridley, Calif.-based NursTech, Inc., which claims to be the largest supplier of certified origin olive trees.

While waiting to see what the fall will bring, the Shaws have created a co-op with a blueberry farmer and another friend to focus on processing the olives. There are three large, commercially operated olive mills in California, with the largest owned by California Olive Ranch in Oroville, which produces half of California’s yield. According to Shaw, the Georgia co-op plans to have the first olive press in Georgia ready for operation next year. With production in Georgia, the co-op hopes to reduce the carbon footprint for olive oil on the East Coast and eliminate dependency on foreign olive oil.

“The naysayers are coming around now and thinking heavily about it,” Shaw says. “Right now the trees look great and a lot of people are looking at them.”

Jennifer Paire is a freelance writer based in Canton, Ga. Curt Harler is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor from Strongsville, Ohio.