As agriculture in the southeast continues to diversify, new crops are discovered all the time. Olive trees seem to be one of the latest, and Berrien Sutton, partner and member in Georgia Olive Farms says they’d be interested in talking to South Carolina producers with marginal or unused pasture land for olive production:
“In South Georgia we have our main orchard. We have about 40 acres we manage in Macon, GA and some in north FL.
We would like to move into SC. If you check the history of olives in the south, in the 1800s, a fair amount of olives were produced in the coastal regions of Georgia and SC. There was a hurricane that came through and the orchards on the GA coast were unkempt. We had the first commercial harvest that has occurred in the southeast since the mid 1800s, that was in 2011.
Currently we are not into table olives, we utilize a method called super high density. Traditionally, like in Europe, the trees are planted about 200 trees per acre. We plant 600 trees per acre in a hedge row, approximately 6 feet apart with 12 foot centers. We do that so we can run a mechanical harvester to avoid the hand labor. We are concentrating on the extra virgin olive oil and we bottled the first of that in the fall of 2011.
Delivery of olives to be crushed was a challenge for us to start with. We have the only commercial olive mill east of the Mississippi River. No olive mills are actually manufactured in the US because its not much of an industry. We purchased our first mill this year. Our first harvest we transported the olives to Texas. The farmers that want to grow in the south will have a mill at our facility near Lakeland GA.
We are about 120 miles from the GA coast, but the olives seem to do better in the coastal regions. We probably aren’t looking to much farther north than Charleston, but certainly along Hilton Head, Beaufort, and Florence.
The olive trees can live for thousands of years and are very disease resistant. We haven’t had any disease or pest pressure yet. We do spray with a fungicide but they are very tough trees and live in a wide range of pH. They like a sandy, well drained soil.
Ninety-eight percent of the olive oil consumed in the US is imported. There is a huge cash crop potential. It would be many years before we could even make a dent, percentage wise, in the olive oil consumption. If anyone is looking for a fall cash crop, we harvest in September, I encourage them to look at our website and do some research.”
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Berrien Sutton with Georgia Olive Farms.