WRENS, Ga. — What do olives, biological-chemical warfare, Georgia politics and a former Jefferson County Christmas tree farm have in common? Mary West.
Just south of Wrens, off a red-clay road, amid 2-story-tall Christmas trees are the spindly survivors of two years of olive tree variety trials she believes could be an answer for Georgia’s drought-stricken farmers.
West’s foray into olive production grew out of a fact-finding trip to she took to southwest Georgia 16 years ago as a legislator serving on the House Natural Resources and the Environment Committee.
“The chairman took us down to see how the drought was affecting the Flint River Valley,” West said. “While I was down there, a number of growers, from all over the state, were telling me that climate change was real but it wasn’t what everyone was thinking it was. It wasn’t just hotter – it was a fluctuation – and that was why crop yields were down.”
West figured that what farmers needed were marketable, alternative crops that could thrive without heavy irrigation in the loamy to sandy soils across the southern part of the state. To find the answer, she turned to her 10-year military experience as a nuclear-biological-chemical warfare officer in the Army.
“I had spent a lot of time with weather studies, soil sampling, soil studies, air flow, vegetation – things that fit right into agriculture, except I had been studying if someone drops something on you where it is going to go and what it is going to affect,” she said.
She used data from the CIA Web site to research crops that thrived in countries whose latitude, longitude, soil and microclimates were similar to Georgia’s.
“I looked to see what they were growing. It boiled down to a couple of things. There was this really sweet wine that was not greatly marketable, and so I said forget that,” she said. “The other thing was olives.”
She discovered that olives, along with wheat, among the oldest crops, came in 2,000 varieties worldwide, with about 200 in commercial production at any one time.
“Then I started checking the marketability and it was very, very high,” she said. “Because the United States has a higher dollar value income than most of the rest of the world that eats olive oil, I found that the price point of a bottle of virgin olive oil will remain higher than the price point of any of these other countries for like, decades, possibly lifetimes.”
Although almost no one she spoke with knew about olives being grown commercially in the Southeast, she found there was historical precedent.
“We had Spanish missionaries, like California did; however, the Southeast was a site of continuous warfare between the English and Spanish,” West said. “The Spanish represented olives and olive oil. The English didn’t like that so trees got pulled out. I also learned there were olive trees in the Savannah Trustees’ Garden (the country’s first public experimental farm). When the first governor came along, he pulled them out to build houses.”
She contacted a former University of Georgia agriculture liaison to the Legislature, who linked her up with a peach horticulturist who concurred that the land most conducive to olive growing was below the Fall Line. They bought trees and propagated them in a greenhouse south of Macon in 2006. About the same time, a group of Alma and Valdosta-area blueberry farmers stumbled on the same idea and planted olive trees.
Then the economy collapsed in 2008. The tree project went away, and so did West’s term in the Legislature. She returned home to spend more time with her teenage children. A year later, she married a childhood friend she had grown up with in Augusta who shared her enthusiasm for the project.
“He told me win or lose, he would pay for my variety trials. I said, well, I know where to go in Georgia and it’s Jefferson County, below the fall line; it’s sandy, with just a little bit of clay,” West said. “The temperature here is optimal for research.”
In 2013, she found a great deal on olive trees that she couldn’t pass up. Then she found a place to put them, the Attaway Farm on Twin Oaks Road in Jefferson County, which she has since renamed Whistle Stop Farms.
“I did my research on the soil composition and found it was perfect,” she said.
West started in 2014 with 500 trees of 30 varieties to determine which ones would survive.
“My trial is very harsh research,” she said. “Basically, I auger a hole, put them in, water them in and then did nothing for one year. I call this phase ‘tough love.’ ”
A year later, she had about 45 trees left. Now she’s down to about 25 and she has narrowed them down to three varieties, Aglandau (a French), Hojiblanca (a Spanish) and Frantoio (an Italian).
“Now we’re ending the second phase, which I call ‘bad parenting,’ ” West said. “Here I watered them and occasionally weed around them. I’ve had good results.”
West recently returned from a buying trip to California, where she put in a propagation order to prepare for the next stage of her research, in which the trees will be traditionally planted and cared for to determine whether they will bear fruit.
The trees that have made it in West’s trials are surviving, not necessarily thriving.
“They haven’t grown very much because they aren’t being cared for,” West explained. “They aren’t branching properly, they aren’t getting pruned for growth, and pruning is a very important part of this. I’m not doing anything other than seeing if they survive and seeing if they do survive, are they growing back out of the root ball or are new leaves coming out of the old wood.”
Her plan is to find a variety not overly sensitive to pests or diseases that bears enough fruit to profitably produce quality oil. Then, she can operate the farm as a nursery for growers in the Southeast.