Oregon farmer hopes to repeat wine success with olive oil

Dec 1, 2010

Northwest farmers--like all farmers, really--are known for their grit. A few decades ago, nobody thought you could grow wine grapes in Oregon. But the early growers worked hard at it and made some great wine. Today, it’s a $1.4 billion a year industry. Now, there’s a new crop on the horizon.

Paul Durant farms with his parents on the rolling hills of Dundee, Oregon. For several decades, they’ve grown pinot noir, pinot gris, and chardonnay grapes. And now, they’re starting to grow arbequina, leccino and frantoio. Olives. Yes, olives. In Oregon. And yes, he’s heard the skeptics:

"What are you doing? It’s not a Mediterranean climate. These are Mediterranean trees, this is a Mediterranean crop. Why would you think you could ever pull it off?" says Paul Durant.

Durant started planting olives six years ago, and now has about 13,000 trees. But he’s learned firsthand how rough it can be. Two years ago, storms dumped three feet of snow on his trees. And last year, the temperature got down to a very un-Mediterranean 8 degrees.

"Up here we probably lost 30%. Down below in areas it was probably a 90% kill rate. It was really tough. And the thing of it is, it’s not like you knew it right away. So it was all spring waiting, are they gonna come back, are they gonna come back? They’re not coming back (laughs)."

Even the trees that survived still took a hit.

"Yeah, you can see here, loose bark. When you peel it back, you can see it’s healing up. But obviously that takes time, and takes energy which could be going to new growth or fruit."

Durant took note of which olives made it through, and adjusted his planting. And, thanks to his engineering background, he’s suiting up the trees for future cold snaps.

"It sounds crazy – we’re procuring thousands of feet of pipe insulation, and we’re gonna put little insulating sleeves around our little trees. If it’s fifteen degrees out, and we can get a few more degrees of cold tolerance, we think we’ll be okay."

Durant’s got a few other backup plans—flooding the fields with water to insulate, and using large fans to blow warm air from the upper fields to the cold lower fields. But it’s not just about managing the temperature. There’s a lot to learn about all aspects of farming a new crop, from pressing to pollinating. Durant learned that the hard way, when some of his Arbequina olives didn’t really turn out olive-sized.

"What we were seeing was a shot berry, it’s called, about the size of a bb. Arbequinas are supposed to be self-pollinating, but reality is they’re probably not."

Durant’s solving that problem by planting a variety of olives in each field to cross-pollinate each other. Despite all of these hurdles, Durant’s committed to seeing the trees through. He’ll even spread pollen with a feather duster if he has to, before the rains wash it away. He figures these early days will be difficult. But hopes they’ll learn the kinks, put more wood on the trees, and build an industry. And if Durant’s feeling discouraged, he just looks to his dad, Ken.

"We planted wine grapes in 1973, probably was 20 of us that used to meet in the fire hall and compare notes. A lot of experimentation to find the right clones, the right root stocks, that would prosper and create world class wines," says Ken Durant.

After all that trial and error, the Durant family now grows about 60 acres of wine grapes. And Paul Durant is hoping his olive oil will have the same success…someday.

"We’re only six years into this experiment with olives, and we need to be patient. We just need to be good farmers, and figure out how to make this work. And the oil that we have made off our trees has been fantastic oil," says Paul Durant.

The Durants just finished pressing more 2,000 pounds of their olives, nearly double last year’s harvest. And they’ve slipped insulation sleeves on nearly 2,000 trees for the coming snows.