It all started with sunflowers.
Clay Oliver grew up in Pitts, near Cordele in Wilcox County, on his family farm, recognized by Georgia as a Centennial Farm, owned by the same family for 100 years or more. At the farm they grow row crops such as cotton and peanuts and produce grass fed beef.
But four years ago, Oliver added one more product to the farm’s offerings - culinary oils. He started with sunflowers, pressing seed from the sunflowers grown on the farm. Now he also makes cold-pressed peanut, benne, pumpkin and pecan oils.
“For a while I was thinking about getting into biofuel in some small way. We could at least provide our own source of energy for the farm. Our county extension agent introduced me to so many people and along the way several led me to the concept of making food grade oil. One of the things that’s appealing is knowing what happens to what you raise. With our regular crops we don’t know what happens to it after it leaves our hands,” said Oliver.
After three years of research, Oliver bought an oil press and began making cold pressed, unrefined oils.
“Cold pressing leaves so much more flavor and instead of all the oil being one color like what you see at the grocery store, these are the natural colors of the seeds and nuts. And the cold press retains all the health benefits of the seeds and nuts,” he said.
The peanut oil comes from inspected local peanuts so there’s no fear of contamination. The pecan oil is made from the farm’s own pecan crop supplemented with pecans from neighboring farms. The benne seed oil is extracted from heirloom Sea Island sesame seeds grown by Anson Mills in South Carolina.
Oliver is justifiably proud of the accolades given his oils. In 2015, the California-based Good Food Foundation put Oliver Farm on the map by putting their pecan oil in the company of nationally recognized food purveyors such as Blackberry Farm and Vermont Creamery. The farm’s green peanut oil won in 2016.
In November 2015, Garden & Gun magazine named Oliver Farm in their Sixth Annual Made in the South Awards and the exposure there has continued to bring the farm wholesale customers and retail clients.
“The bulk of our business is selling to wholesale buyers. But the farmers markets and events we attend create cash flow and help put a face on our products. We can let people sample them and talk about what we do.”
Oliver credits Don Cooper of Cooper Ag Service in Atlanta for writing a grant that helps him pay for the expenses of attending a weekly farmers market. “We wanted to expand our markets and the grant helps me cover the cost of market workers and things like that. We do four markets each month: the Way Green Local Fare Market in Waycross, the Peachtree Road and Freedom farmers markets in Atlanta and the Wiregrass Market in Tifton. We’d like to expand to other markets and we’re looking to find people who want to do this kind of work.”
He’s also grateful for community-supported agriculture programs like Global Growers who include the farm’s products in their boxes, and for John Short of Georgia Proud Provisions who includes the farm’s pecan oil and pecan flour in offerings at local farmers markets.
But his biggest thanks go to his wife, Valerie. “She left her job in the Wilcox County school system of 17 years to help me full time last summer. That was one of my early goals for the business. She runs the office and bottles all of the oil as well as working markets. There is no way that I could handle all of this without her support and help.”
Speaking of that pecan flour, it’s a clever use of the by-product of pressing all that pecan oil. “Once we press out the oil, we’re able to get what’s left really dry and turn it into a fine flour. It retains all the antioxidant qualities of pecans so you get the health benefits as well as great flavor.
Chrysta Poulos, Creative Director of Pastry for Ford Fry Restaurants, is a fan. “Chef Craig Richards at St. Cecilia had been wanting a Linzer Tart on the menu for quite some time, but I wanted to make it Southern somehow. Holly Chute came in for lunch one day at King + Duke and brought me some samples of the Oliver Farm Pecan flour, as well as their Pecan Oil, as a gift. When I was testing recipes for this seasonal Linzer Tart for St. Cecilia, it hit me… I would use the pecan flour in place of the ground hazelnuts in the recipe and see how it comes out… And it was delicious! The texture was great, with a sweet, earthy, nutty flavor of pecans… a great compliment to the fig filling and sweet & spicy ice cream. Currently at St. Cecilia, you can find the Fig ‘Linzer' Tart with White Chocolate-White Pepper Ice Cream, Oliver Farms Pecan Oil, and Balsamic. The Pecan Oil is super clean and does not linger. With the balsamic and figs, it just worked for the dish, giving an extra layer of pecan flavor without overpowering the other components. And the pecan flour has been great to work with and I can’t wait to find other recipes to try it out in.”
In the Atlanta area, Oliver Farm products can be found at Preserving Place, The Cook’s Warehouse and Strippaggio as well as dozens of locations around the state and the farm’s four local farmers markets. Everything is also available for purchase at http://oliverfarm.com/.