Western Innovator: Olives take root in Oregon

Olive growers expect acreage to multiply; OSU researchers study crop.

 

KEIZER, Ore. — Dawn and Larry Monagon planted the first olive trees in Oregon in 2002, defying the conventional wisdom that the trees couldn’t survive north of California.

“We have a nice piece of property that can grow anything big or small, and it’s suited for experimental stuff,” Dawn Monagon said. “Someone mentioned olives, and my husband loves olives. So, we thought, Why not check it out?”

Despite being told by California olive growers that the crop would never survive in Oregon, the Monagons thought they’d give it a try.

“(We were told) they’ll never survive a winter. Well, surely they’ve done that,” she said.

The Monagons established Victory Estates on their five acres, and began to produce and mill olive oil. Her husband died last year.

“Our (operation) is small and different than industrial ones. We wanted it to grow and be an industry that took off,” Monagon said. “We took pride in watching and seeing what worked and what didn’t.”

IMG_1605
Olives grown at Victory Estates in Keizer, Ore.

There are now 50 acres of olives for oil production in Oregon, and that number could soon multiply, with a project in the works to plant 200 acres, Bogdan Caceu, executive director of the Olive Growers of Oregon, said. He said he could not identify the growers planning the expansion.

“All I can say is it’s a larger player that has its fingers in a number of crops and also in the tourism industry,” Caceu said of the people planning the expansion. “They’ve done a very thorough and disciplined due diligence.”

The planting will be in either the Medford or Roseburg area, and data is being collected to see where the olives would grow best. Caceu said the final decision on the location will be made next spring.

Although a project of this size would barely make it on the radar in California or Spain, where olives are a major crop, Caceu said there is potential to take olive acreage to “much higher than 250 pretty quickly.”

“People come over and talk to me and say, ‘I’ve been thinking about olives and I have this many acres,’” he said. “I’ve had at least five to 40 (people) approach and show interest.”

While there is interest in growing olives, Caceu said one obstacle gets in the way — and it’s a big one.

“That obstacle is the cold-hardiness of olives and the cold temperatures in Oregon,” he said.

Oregon west of the Cascade Range is famous for its mild winters, Caceu said. However, there are regularly two to four nights of below-freezing temperatures each year. When that happens, young olive trees under 10 years old can suffer damage that kills them to the ground.

“It doesn’t damage the roots,” Caceu said, “but effectively you’re back down to zero, starting from scratch.”

Oregon State University researchers are trying to overcome this challenge by studying which olive tree cultivars are the most cold-hardy, and attempting to improve propagation techniques.

Javier Fernandez-Salvador, OSU Marion and Polk County Extension agent, leads the project with his team: Neil Bell, OSU Marion and Polk County Extension agent; Heather Stoven, OSU Yamhill County Extension agent; and Victoria Binning, OSU Marion County Extension agent.

Olive Propagation
Javier Fernandez-Salvador, an Oregon State University Marion and Polk County extension agent, and his team of researchers propagate olive branches. The team is studying cold-hardiness in olive trees.

Fernandez-Salvador describes the project as his “baby,” and said that they are looking at potting the cultivars  and keeping the trees in a greenhouse for the winter.

“We want to make an affordable, small structure for plants before moving them outside,” he said. “We think by potting we’ll get better results. We are trying to transform that into hard data.”

The project will also evaluate systems that haven’t been successful in the past, and will be planting small trees in fields as well.

“We expect a lot of cultivars not to survive,” Fernandez-Salvador said.

Beyond cold hardiness, the team will research other factors, such as dry farming versus irrigation and flat versus sloped land.

He said that because people have lost investments in the past the team wants to avoid recommending anything, but rather provide hard science to help growers decide if they want to plant the crop.

After this project, Fernandez-Salvador will apply for funding to evaluate the agronomics of growing olive trees. He said it’s hard to sell the crop fresh, and milling olives for oil provides added value.

Paul Durant of Red Ridge Farms in Dayton, ore., operates the state’s largest commercial olive oil mill. He said olive oil is a niche product that works best sold directly to the consumer market.

“That drives more awareness and that’s where the growth will be,” he said. “The food industry here in the Northwest elevates the food experience and connects to growers. It is really limitless in a lot of ways.”

Monagon said she thinks the industry will continue to grow, and hopes she and her husband helped inspire people to start planting olive trees.

“I would like to keep farming viable and interesting in Oregon, and if the olive industry can do that, that would be great,” she said.

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