Olive oil business takes root in Oregon
By CRAIG REED
For The Capital Press
GLIDE, Ore. — Any doubts about the ability to grow olives in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains and to bottle the oil have been eliminated along with the pits.
An eight-acre olive grove located on the River Ranch a couple miles east of this small rural community produced 720 bottles of olive oil this spring. The oil was pressed from a harvest of 4,470 pounds of olives from the grove last fall. Under the label of Oregon Olive Oil, the product is now for sale at the ranch and on the Internet at the business’ website, www.riverranchoregonoliveoil.com. The dark bottles containing 8.45 ounces of oil sell for $22.50 each.
“It’s Oregon-grown, Oregon-milled, Oregon-bottled and Oregon-sold,” said Mel Otis, owner of River Ranch and its olive operation. “We feel we’re on the way to launching a new industry in Oregon. I don’t expect to become a multimillionaire with this farm, but I want to develop the best olive farm in Oregon.”
Otis is a businessman from Long Beach, California, who now splits his time between that location and Glide.
Despite the possibility of cold weather in the Cascade foothills killing or stunting the trees, Otis had about 7,000 trees planted in August of 2010 on fairly flat land bordered on one side by the North Umpqua River and surrounded by a mix of Douglas fir and madrone trees. Two-thirds of the plantings were of the arbequina variety and the other third were arbosanas. Both are tolerant of cold.
Two years of mild winters benefited the young trees, allowing them to establish a good foundation in the soil. Otis also credits the nearby river for keeping winter temperatures bearable for the trees.
“We have a unique climate here because of the large river expanse that parallels the property,” Otis said. “The river creates air movement and in the wintertime keeps it much, much warmer.
“We were very fortunate to have the micro climate we have here because the olives didn’t suffer the frost damage this past winter that most other places did suffer,” he added.
The poundage total from River Ranch’s harvest last fall was the largest from the handful of olive producers in Oregon, according to Otis. The olives were pressed at Red Ridge Farms near Dayton, Oregon. After the impurities settled, the oil was poured into buckets and returned to River Ranch for bottling.
“It’s tremendously exciting,” Paul Durant, co-owner of Red Ridge Farms, said. “We’re happy to be a part of it. The quality was fantastic.”
The grove’s first harvest in 2012 produced 430 pounds of hand-picked olives. That yielded 80 bottles of oil. According to Otis, taste tasters described the oil as “rich and buttery.”
“Our cold-weather olives have a special gourmet characteristic and difference which we believe sets them apart from Spanish, Italian, European products or a blend of those which they market allegedly as extra-virgin olive oil,” Otis said.
Durant, who has had six olive harvests at Red Ridge Farms and has milled the olives for five other producers, said the cold-tolerant trees don’t yield as much oil per pound of olives as those from warmer climates, but the oil is “special and so unique.”
Durant said Oregon olive producers now face the task of marketing their Oregon product to consumers.
“We’ll have to work to educate consumers on what is a good olive oil and how do you use it,” Durant said. “I think Oregon has a great culinary movement. There are people who are conscious about good food, they’re willing to support good products and they’ll use Oregon oils.
“Like any fledgling industry, you need people with a passion for it, and Mel Otis has that for olives,” he added.
Otis explained that being in the olive business is part of his family’s history. His grandfather had groves on the Peloponnese Peninsula southwest of Athens, Greece, about 150 years ago.