Robbie Cheek planted a handful of olive trees on his property in Waverly less than a decade ago with the intent of making homemade olive oil for personal use.
When the first crop was harvested four years after the trees were planted, Cheek took the freshly picked olives to Lakeland, Fla., where they were pressed, producing less than a gallon. What was produced with the blend of two varieties of olives, however, exceeded expectations.
Cheek now has 1,800 trees on three acres and produces enough of his olive oil, The Branch, to sell a limited number of bottles in Camden and Glynn counties. Some restaurants in the Golden Isles use his oil with their meals.
“It’s not a moneymaker,” he said. “It’s more of a hobby for us.”
Cheek said he and his wife like Mediterranean food, which is why they planted the first olive trees on their property.
The high humidity, hot summers and moist soil of Coastal Georgia is not conducive to growing olive trees, but Cheek said historical accounts show the Spaniards planted olive trees on the barrier islands of Coastal Georgia.
With careful nurturing, Cheek learned olive trees will grow and produce a quality crop.
“They’re pretty high maintenance,” he said. “The biggest problem is with weed control.”
The moist soil reduces the yield, but the quality of fruit is great. The olives are harvested when some of the fruit begins changing colors from green to brown in late summer. The blend of two varieties of olives gives the oil a natural peppery finish that Cheek said is the sign of a quality product.
Timing is crucial when the olives are harvested and rushed to the press in Florida so that the fruit is squeezed at its optimum flavor. Cheek said he hires professional pickers so the olives can be quickly harvested by hand.
“I’ve learned friends and family spend too much time talking,” Cheek said.
A late frost can also have a major impact on his trees. Cheek said he lost his entire crop four years ago when a late frost struck the region just as his trees were flowering.
One surprise is how bitter a freshly picked olive tastes and how it is transformed once the oil has been pressed from the fruit.
Cheek said he plans to purchase his own mill this year so he doesn’t have to rush to Florida after his crop is picked. There is a sense of urgency in getting the olives pressed within 24 hours of harvest for optimal flavor.
While Cheek is producing enough fresh-pressed olive oil to sell to local restaurants and shops, he said the intent is not to make it a full-time job. Most of his business is word-of-mouth, though he is creating a website to begin marketing his product.
Customers can also text or call him at 912-674-3119 to place an order.