OLEA project

Javier Fernandez-Salvador, extension berry and olive specialist for Oregon State University, discusses a field trial growing olive trees at the North Willamette Research and Extension Center.

There was a time not too long ago when anyone who talked about growing wine grapes in Oregon or Washington state would be greeted with a cocked head. Wine grapes had been produced in the Pacific Northwest since the 19th century but only on a small scale.

Only through the efforts of growers who weren’t afraid to take a chance and a cadre of researchers did grapes — and the wine they make — become an important part of the region’s economy. Today, the wine industry contributes billions of dollars to it.

In Washington state, for example, the number of wineries grew from 19 in 1981 to more than 1,000 today, according to the state wine industry. Oregon had 34 wineries in 1980 and now has about 800.

All from a crop that only a few visionaries thought could be produced at a commercial level in the region.

It makes us think about the other possibilities that could exist for Northwest growers.

Take olives, for example.

Olives are being grown in parts of Oregon and, as was the case with wine grapes decades ago, some look askance at such a crop.

But history demonstrates that as time and markets change growing new crops is a possibility.

It wasn’t too long ago that commercial groves of olives for oil enjoyed a resurgence in California. Now more than 41,000 acres of olives for oil are grown there.

In Western Oregon, a few intrepid growers have been cultivating olive trees. The success they’ve seen has encouraged researchers from Oregon State University to delve into how best to propagate the crop. Which varieties and how to raise them are key areas they are exploring.

With a $193,000 grant from the Western Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program, they have undertaken the Olea Project. “Olea” is Latin for “olive.”

With that support, olives may well find a place on the list of more than 200 crops commercially grown in Oregon.

This not only illustrates the pioneer spirit of Northwest farmers but how the region’s land grant universities — with support from the USDA and industry — help farmers investigate new crops.

In Idaho, for example, researchers are investigating whether almonds can grow. While almonds have for decades flourished in California — more than 1.4 million acres of almond trees grow there — the idea of growing almonds in Idaho might run into a few sidelong glances.

Yet researchers continue to find that unusual crops will indeed grow in unusual places.

Only time — and the markets — will tell which crops can be successful. In the meantime, farmers and researchers will continue to use their imaginations to investigate the possibilities.

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