In Georgia: The Next Oil Barons

Imke Lass
by Chris Dixon - Georgia - February/March 2012

Georgia farmers produce the South’s newest cash crop

Under the glassy-eyed gaze of a wall laden with stuffed turkey and deer, Jason Shaw, a recently elected Georgia state legislator, pours a bit of pale, greenish-gold oil from a dark bottle into a minuscule shot glass. “You don’t want to drink the whole thing,” Shaw says. “Just slurp it a little. Get some air in it.”

Sitting at the kitchen table of the Shaw family’s tiny hunting cabin in Lakeland, Georgia, I’m struck by the sharp contrasts of the modern South. A nearly forty-year-old man who grew up helping his granddaddy render family hogs into high-grade, artery-clogging lard is taking a dainty sommelier’s sip of olive oil, a tonic praised for both its health benefits and its delicate flavor. And this isn’t just any olive oil; it’s his olive oil. Shaw and his family have produced Georgia’s first certified extra-virgin olive oil through their Georgia Olive Farms cooperative.

Fittingly, we discover a fresh loaf of Merita on the counter, pop open a couple of Cokes, and commence swirling the soft white bread through the Shaws’ elixir. It tastes buttery, lightly fruity, and a lot fresher than anything you buy at the store. We’re joined by Jason’s father, Jay, who recently retired from Georgia’s legislature, and his ponytailed cousin, Kevin, whose weathered hands have reared the state’s first commercially grown olives in well over a century.

During the antebellum period, olive groves dotted the Lowcountry landscape of Charleston, South Carolina, and Georgia’s St. Simons and Cumberland islands alongside peanuts, tomatoes, and corn. But labor shortages during the Civil War, the advent of cheap, easy-to-produce cottonseed oil, and a mighty hurricane left most groves abandoned or destroyed by the late 1800s.