Oregon growers 'about 15 years behind California'
By JO MCINTYRE
For the Capital Press
When it comes to growing olive trees, one thing Yamhill County, Ore., olive tree growers David Lawrence and Ken Durant agree on is that "Oregon is not California!"
California is a big table olive producer, and since about 1995 has produced olive oils as well, but experts see the much-smaller Oregon plantations as excellent for producing boutique oils.
Lawrence, Durant and other Oregon growers have struggled to master differences in climate, tree types and cultivation practices.
As the son of a Fresno, Calif., dairy farmer and after a career in the semiconductor industry, it was natural for Lawrence to run tests on more than two dozen cultivars of olive trees from all over the world to master those differences.
"We're about 15 years behind California," in knowledge and development of successful practices, he said, during a tour of his farm, Oregon Olives.
"Everybody assumed growing olives in Oregon would be easy," he said. How hard could it be? Oregon's Pinot Noir grapes have gained world fame and olive trees grow in similar climate and terrain.
But California-style practices aren't right for Oregon.
"Of the 140,000 or so olive trees brought to Oregon prior to last winter, I estimate 125,000 are now dead," Lawrence said.
After more than five years, he's learned enough to achieve an 80 percent survival rate for his mature trees. They even survived the last two cold winters. He credits advice from Australians and New Zealanders, where growing conditions are similar to Oregon. Lawrence thinks trees should be planted at altitudes between 400 feet to 700 feet to stay above winter cold and get all the sun that is available. Beginning growers should plant no more than five acres to start.
His two favorite varieties are dual-purpose -- both table olives and oil -- cultivars, Greek Kalamata and Sicilian Nocellara del Belice.
Durant's winegrowing neighbors teased the long-time growers of herbs and Pinot Noir grapes on their Red Ridge Farms, about wasting good Pinot land on olives, where Durants planted about 2,000 olive trees six years ago.
Like Lawrence, Durant's older, bigger trees survived winter, but newer ones suffered. Plantings at higher altitudes also did better, because they had air drainage. He favors Arbequina, Arbosano and Greek Koroneike olive trees.
"In 2008, they had a trunk diameter over an inch. Then, we planted a bunch more trees and mortality was fairly significant," Durant said.
National Agricultural Statistical Service numbers show that in spite of early enthusiasm, by 2007 there were just eight olive tree growing operations in Oregon.
"In California, certainly the industry is growing very quickly given the abysmal economic times," said olive oil consultant Alexandra Devarenne, of Petaluma, Calif.
There's lots of interest in olives in California because they are a water thrifty plant, she said, plus trees have a wider tolerance for soil types than many other common commercial crops -- so they are a good crop for California.
Oregon is at the edge of the olive-growing world.
"That means climate issues -- cold primarily, but that also contributes to complexity and flavors," Devarenne said. "So where quality is important, a place with a borderline climate could produce a product that is extraordinarily good."
Red Ridge: www.redridgefarms.com