As soon as possible after stepping off a plane last Thursday, I tossed some clothes in the laundry, kissed Mr. Olive Crazy and the little olives hello and goodnight, and caught a few hours of sleep. Early the next morning I packed my car with the backpack I travelled to and from Florida with a few weeks ago and the toiletry bag I had to leave behind when I flew. I headed for Savannah and the Southeastern Fruit and Vegetable Conference.
It was tough to leave my family again but I was excited about seeing my farm-country buddies, especially the guys from Batten Tractor in Douglas, Georgia and from Oxbo International, a specialty harvester company with several locations around the US. I was also excited about attending the first Olive Educational Session to be held at the Conference.
While I waited in line at registration I looked around to see who I knew. I spotted extension agents, the Governor’s agriculture liaison, a couple of Congressional aides, a clump of blueberry growers, and some organic composting folks. Under normal circumstances I would have made the rounds, shakin’ hands, and howdy doin’, but I was on a mission. I needed to get to the Olive Session on time and get a good spot.
Inside the room I selected an aisle seat with an unobstructed view of the podium. Perfect. Now I was free to have lunch and wander about until the session began. I saw lots of friends and collected a whole bunch of cheek kisses. I also contributed my fair share too.
On the way back from the cheek kissing frenzy I ran into Paul Miller, the President of the Australian Olive Association. He was looking non the worse for wear considering all the world travelling he does in the name of olive oil quality, truth, justice and the insert-your-country-here way.
Paul was one of the presenters at the Olive Educational Session. Even though I had met Paul before, I had never heard him speak. I was looking forward to his presentation.
By the time the Session started the room was packed. Dr. Mark Hanley of Georgia Olive Growers Association and Jason Shaw of Georgia Olive Farms were two of the first speakers up. After dignitary shout-outs and thanks to helpful people, the educational part got underway.
Jason talked about the timeline of Georgia Olive Farms attempts to grow olives in the southeast. I’ve heard him make this speech several times and I still enjoy it.
Then came Kevin Shaw who, along with his cousin, Sam spends most of his time in the groves. Kevin went into detail about how Georgia Olive Farms consulted with specialists, selected the site, prepared the soil, and planted the trees. He talked about the tree and row distances they used, staking and trellising, and the fertigation system they employed. He then spoke about the years of care and worrying – the disasters (real and feared) and successes. He finished his speech by explaining harvesting trial and error, milling, and an extra virgin olive oil product that was not nearly enough to meet a fraction of market demand.
Kevin’s speech was honest. “This is farming,” he said – plain and simple. Even though olives grow in California and Texas there is no playbook for growing in the southeastern United States. It is a risk, but a risk Kevin and his cousins felt was worth taking.
The audience had lots of questions. I could tell from the type of questions that these were growers who were excited but cautious. Many had been burned before by promises of amazing results and big profits, and the Shaws did not make any promises. I thought that took a lot of restraint from guys who are distributors of the Super High Density (SHD) varieties available in the United States sold by the California company, Nurstech.
Next up was Paul Miller. Paul talked about the marketability in the United States of high quality olive oil, gave US market probability data, and acreage projections in the southeast. He talked about the world olive oil market and coming changes. His speech was full of great information. I would love to hear the long version of it sometime.
Just before the end of the Session was near, a couple of olive growers gave testimonials. Normally I would have zoned out at this part but one of the testimonials involved USDA funding that was sought by one of the growers. After initial approval the USDA denied the funding. The grower appealed and won. This was some news I had been waiting for and was pleased to hear.
I left the room having been “olive educated” and wanting more. As I walked through the convention center corridors headed for cocktails with my tractor and harvester buddies I thought about how I could synthesize all I learned and share it with you. I realized that synthesizing the information would not be useful. I decided that I will take certain aspects of the speeches, research those aspects and expand on them in separate articles.
The worldwide olive and olive oil industries are expanding and changing, some parts slowly and some parts very fast. I am committed to keeping up with what’s happening and keeping you informed.
May the sun shine through your branches.