Story and Photo by Spencer Adrian
Nestled along the rolling hills of Oregon’s Willamette Valley, small groves of trees laden with green olives are taking root. Varieties such as arbequina, leccino, and picual olives are being planted in rows ten to 15 feet apart in hopes of bringing the rich olive oil culture of Europe to the Pacific Northwest and establishing olive production as Oregon’s newest agricultural industry.
Although olives are traditionally grown in the hot, arid climates of Italy, Greece, and Spain, some Oregon farmers are discovering olive trees can adapt, and even thrive, in the state’s temperate climate. David and Carmen Lawrence of Oregon Olives began experimenting with olives in 2005 in an attempt to determine which varieties of trees can survive in Oregon. The couple began with a small olive grove on Carmen’s parents’ property in Amity, Oregon, and have since expanded to their own nearby property.
Before moving to Oregon, David lived in Southern California, which is home to one of the biggest olive industries in the US. It was there he learned the olive growing techniques he experiments with in the Willamette Valley. “Olives used to grow in Oregon years ago, but they died out,” David says. “We are mostly an R&D (Research and Development) group trying to figure out what works best here.”
He believes the olive industry disappeared because of Oregon’s harsh winters and lack of knowledge about which trees are best suited for the state’s climate. David and Carmen now grow more than 65 varieties of olive trees at Oregon Olives and plan to add more. The couple also offers more than 1,500 trees for sale to farmers and small business owners wanting to establish olive groves of their own.
David hopes Oregon Olives’ research groves will inspire farmers to start planting more olive trees. He has found varieties like leccino and arbequina grow quickly, produce fruit, and are hardy enough to stand up to Oregon’s winters. David believes Oregon’s groves have the potential to produce gold medal-winning olive oil at national competitions, which judge oil based on quality and freshness. David and Carmen don’t compete, but David believes his olives have the potential. Instead, when the olives are almost ripe in the fall, David and Carmen invite people to their farm where they host tours and show how well olive trees grow in Oregon. “We bring people out here and show them what plants are growing the best and yielding the most,” David says. “The best way to show them what works is to show them the actual plants.”
Paul Durant co-owns Oregon Olive Mill in Dayton, Oregon, with his parents Penny and Ken. The Durant family began planting olive trees in 2004 and has planted more than 13,000 olive trees on their property.
As the company’s head miller, Durant blends olives from Oregon Olive Mill with olives from Northern California to create oils with a distinct Northwest flavor. The arbequina blend, one of his best sellers, features a mild flavor packed with a peppery kick. Oregon Olive Mill bottled more than 6,000 liters of olive oil in the last year. Durant says business has been good, but the market is still small. “Olive oil is truly a global commodity, and we have to focus on our quality [to stand out]. We try to mill our oil in as little time as possible,” Durant says.
In order to preserve freshness, Durant aims to extract oil from his olives within a few hours of harvest. The shorter the amount of time from tree to bottle, the better the oil is considered. The longer the fruits wait to be processed and bottled, the more they break down and lose highly valued flavor and polyphenols, chemicals which may help raise the amount of good cholesterol, or HDLs, in a person’s body.
Olives in Oregon reach their peak in mid- to late November. The moment the olives are ripe, Durant’s trees are picked by hand or machine depending on the tree’s size. The olives are then dumped into a mill where they are washed and crushed, pit and all. The crushed mix of olives is spun in a large centrifuge that separates the water from the oils based on their density and viscosity levels. Following the process, the oil is drained into large tanks where it is stored until ready for bottling.
Compared to the grapes on Durant’s farm, the olive trees are easy to care for. Every year he plants two-year-old trees with established root structures. These trees are said to be precocious, meaning they start bearing fruit at a young age. After a tree is planted and begins yielding fruit, an olive grower’s primary concern is freezing temperatures, which can destroy an olive crop. “We don’t have to worry about disease like we do with grapes,” Durant says. “The only thing we worry about with the olives is a hard freeze. It’s all about getting the right tree.”
Durant must ensure he chooses trees hardy enough to survive Oregon’s cold winters, but that will also bear fruit in the state’s mild summers. Oregon’s growing season only lasts a few months, and the fruit has to be picked before a winter freeze sets in. If a tree isn’t acclimated to Oregon, there is no hope for olive oil. Currently, Durant grows Spanish and Greek varieties in his farm, but he plans to expand to Italian varieties soon.
For David, these olive trees are just the beginning. Each year, more people visit his farm to see if they, too, can learn how to grow olive trees. Small business owners and families with large plots of land stop by to learn about the oil process and ask advice about which trees grow best. Although David’s trees are still small, he believes Oregon farmers have the potential to grow world-class olives. As the olive oil experiment continues to catch on, David foresees he and Carmen growing olives for many years to come.
“We have a 500-year plan here, and we hope we can grow olives for even longer,” David says.