N. America

Oregon Project Aims to Promote Olive Oil Sector

Local growers and researchers from Oregon State University are teaming up to solve some of the biggest problems facing the state's fledgling sector.

Durant Vineyards. Photo by alanweinerphotography.com
May. 21, 2019
By Daniel Dawson
Durant Vineyards. Photo by alanweinerphotography.com

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A new project launched by Oregon State University (OSU) aims to help spread olivi­cul­ture through­out California’s north­ern neigh­bor.

What OSU is doing is putting some sci­en­tific method behind the research. When you have that hap­pen­ing, we’re all going to ben­e­fit and I think people will start to become attracted to the tree as a com­mer­cially viable option.- Paul Durant, master miller at Durant Olive Mill

The pri­mary objec­tives of the Olea project will be to deter­mine the most effec­tive prop­a­ga­tion tech­niques for olives in Oregon; iden­tify which cul­ti­vars grow best in Oregon’s unique cli­mate; assess the best trans­plant­ing and up-pot­ting prac­tices for achiev­ing rapid orchard estab­lish­ment; and making all of this infor­ma­tion avail­able to the public in order to help bol­ster the fledg­ling indus­try.

Sitting between 45 and 46 degrees of lat­i­tude, Oregon is located a bit far­ther north of other, more tra­di­tional, olive grow­ing regions. However, grow­ers and offi­cials work­ing on the Olea project believe that com­mer­cial olive grow­ing can suc­ceed here.

See more: U.S. Olive Oil News

While no offi­cial pro­duc­tion sta­tis­tics are cur­rently being kept – some­thing that Olea seeks to change – Paul Durant, the master miller at Durant Olive Mills, esti­mates that Oregon pro­duced about 5,000 liters of olive oil last year. Durant has a gen­eral ideal about this figure since he runs the only com­mer­cial mill in the state.

Production has slowly grown since Oregonians first began grow­ing olives com­mer­cially about 15 years ago. While the sector has not expe­ri­enced the same kind of steady growth that California has achieved in that time, the number of acres of olive trees has crept up to about 100, all of which are located in the val­leys west of the Cascade Range.

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“I think we’ve expe­ri­enced kind of incre­men­tal growth,” Durant told Olive Oil Times. “People have gotten in and then they’ve gotten out. Then other people have gotten in.”

The incre­men­tal nature of this growth, and the over­all suc­cess of the olive grow­ers, has a lot to do with weather pat­terns, accord­ing to Javier Fernandez-Salvador, an assis­tant pro­fes­sor at OSU and lead inves­ti­ga­tor on the Olea project.

“What we’ve found here in Oregon is that our yield and pro­duc­tion depends a lot on the con­di­tions of the pre­vi­ous season,” Fernandez-Salvador told Olive Oil Times. “If you look at the 2018 har­vest, we had a really mild winter and then we also had lower pre­cip­i­ta­tion, a drier spring and summer, which is good for pol­li­na­tion. A lot of our grow­ers reported much higher yields than before.”

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The pre­vi­ous few years have brought more mild win­ters, which has allowed some olive groves that were recently planted to go through a couple of pro­duc­tion cycles.

“In Oregon, it’s not a matter of having a hot and dry summer,” Fernandez-Salvador said. “It’s about too much cold in the winter.”

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When the first olive groves began pop­ping up in Oregon 15 years ago, many pro­duc­ers simply imported olive trees from California, hoping to repli­cate the suc­cess olive grow­ers were expe­ri­enc­ing far­ther south.

“Unfortunately, that system does not work in Oregon,” Fernandez-Salvador said. “First of all because of our topog­ra­phy and second because of our cli­matic lim­i­ta­tions.”

Serious freeze events in 2008, 2010 and 2013 wiped out many orchards and led those who remained to rethink their strate­gies.

In many ways, the evo­lu­tion of the Oregonian olive oil sector resem­bles what hap­pened with the Pinot Noir grape a quar­ter-cen­tury ago.

“Oregon was not a wine pro­duc­ing region 25 years ago and some grow­ers started bring­ing cul­ti­vars and trying them and then found out that Pinot Noir thrived here,” Fernandez-Salvador said.

Oregon is now quite famous for its Pinot Noir grapes, which are cold tol­er­ant enough to with­stand the freez­ing win­ters. However, in order to suc­ceed in grow­ing the Pinot Noir grape, pro­duc­ers first failed with many other vari­eties.

Bogdan Caceu, the exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Olive Growers of Oregon and an olive grower him­self at La Creole Orchards, told a local agri­cul­tural pub­li­ca­tion that he believes olive oil can repeat the story of Pinot Noir.

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In order to be suc­cess­ful, Caceu said that grow­ers must find an olive cul­ti­var that is more cold-tol­er­ant than the ones grown in California, is char­ac­ter­ized by early bloom­ing and has excep­tional sen­so­r­ial qual­i­ties.

“If we check all those boxes, that’s the Pinot Noir of olives,” he said.

Fernandez-Salvador, how­ever, believes in a more nuanced approach than simply find­ing the right cul­ti­var.

“Unfortunately for Oregon, cul­ti­vars by them­selves are not a silver bullet to be able to pro­duce com­mer­cially here because of the phys­i­ol­ogy of the crop,” he said.

“Unlike in grapes, which are very cold tol­er­ant, you just needed to find some­thing that thrives with our shorter ripen­ing and pro­duc­tion season, but with olives the prob­lem is not the ripen­ing season,” he added. “The main prob­lem is sur­viv­ing the winter damage and estab­lish­ing an orchard fast enough so that it is com­mer­cially viable.

However, some grow­ers have found suc­cess with sev­eral vari­eties that were imported from colder regions. Fernandez-Salvador said that vari­eties from the north of Italy and south of France had so far shown quite a bit of promise. OSU is cur­rently con­duct­ing field stud­ies to deter­mine which cul­ti­vars have the best chances of suc­cess in Oregon.

Durant, on the other hand, said that he has seen the most suc­cess with his three main Italian vari­eties.

“I am a big fan of Leccino, Frantoio and Picual,” he said. “They are prob­a­bly my top three and they have been pro­duc­ing a good amount of fruit, which is obvi­ously the key too. It’s one thing to sur­vive, but can you also get a decent amount of fruit out of them.”

Olive oil pro­duc­tion in Oregon is fre­quently a race against the clock. Olive trees tend to bloom in mid to late June and the ear­li­est that the har­vest can take place is in November, with olive grow­ers remain­ing ever-vig­i­lant of the prospect of the year’s first snow­fall.

However, the vig­i­lance and efforts of Oregonian pro­duc­ers often pay off in terms of qual­ity. Durant said that Oregonian olive oils tend to have a unique flavor and high polyphe­nol count. Fernandez-Salvador said that tests of var­i­ous olive oils done at the UC Davis Olive Center have con­firmed this.

“I don’t know if it’s the extended ripen­ing, we bloom really late com­pared with other cli­mates, but the oil is phe­nom­e­nally dis­tinc­tive,” Durant said.

The high-qual­ity end prod­uct, com­bined with strong demand for locally pro­duced goods in Oregon, means that olive grow­ing and oil pro­duc­ing can be quite prof­itable.

“Growers are look­ing at pro­duc­ing local market, high value prod­ucts,” Fernandez-Salvador said. “Some are even sell­ing 250 mil­li­liter bot­tles for $40.”

And more people are show­ing inter­est in join­ing the sector as well. Fernandez-Salvador said that the state cur­rently has about 10 to 12 com­mer­cial grow­ers and about 15 to 20 smaller-scale grow­ers.

“It’s a small indus­try, but the other week we held a grower meet­ing [at the uni­ver­sity] and we had around 50 to 60 people,” he said.

Durant said that the Olea project should help the sector grow faster than its pre­vi­ous incre­men­tal rate and looks for­ward to a bigger and better Oregonian olive oil indus­try.

“I think it should grow faster. That’s my belief,” he said. “What OSU is doing is putting some sci­en­tific method behind the research. When you have that hap­pen­ing, we’re all going to ben­e­fit and I think people will start to become attracted to the tree as a com­mer­cially viable option.”