Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Georgia Says "Ciao" to Olive Oil

When I learned recently that Valdosta, Georgia, is named for Italy's beautiful Val d'Aosta, I had to assume that Valdosta's founders had never been to northern Italy. Val d'Aosta is a spectacular Alpine valley, full of picturesque villages framed by dramatic, snow-capped peaks. Valdosta, Georgia, is known for high school football and signifying that you're almost to Florida. What two places could possibly have less in common? Little did I know that in tiny Lakeland, just outside Valdosta, one of Italy's best known exports has become Georgia's newest cash crop.

Recently featured in Atlanta Magazine and the most quintessentially Southern titled magazine ever, Garden & Gun, Georgia Olive Farms' 2011 harvest was the first commercial olive harvest east of the Mississippi since the 1800's. Once a significant crop, olives disappeared from the Southeast after the Civil War. Enter Jason Shaw, the brains behind Georgia Olive Farms.

After spending time in Italy during college, Shaw thought that if olives could thrive in the southern Italian heat they also ought to do pretty well in the south Georgia heat. In the spring of 2009, Shaw invested in scores of olive saplings, supported the saplings with wire and set up an irrigation system. A scant two and half years later, the saplings had grown to six feet tall and Georgia's first olive crop was harvested. As the 40 acres of trees mature, their yield is expected to grow tenfold.  

The first batch of Georgia-grown olive oil has already attracted notice from high-profile chefs like Charleston's Sean Brock and Athens' Peter Dale. Now that Shaw has proven olives to be a viable crop, others will no doubt move into this burgeoning industry. In fact, Brock has already planted olive trees on his property outside Charleston and at least one other olive farm has been planted in south Georgia.

For the record, Shaw claims his olive oil is more flavorful than its Italian counterpart. While I'll reserve judgment until I've tasted Georgia olive oil for myself, world-class olive oil will be a welcome addition to a state better known for growing peanuts and chickens.

Check out Georgia Olive Farms' website below. Though you can't buy Shaw's olive oil yet, it will be available soon.

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