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Warm-Weather Olive Trees Crop up in Snowy Oregon

After surviving snows and freezes that killed off several thousand other trees, this arbequina tree is producing a good crop of olives.

Farmer's ingenuity allows him to persevere despite setbacks

A Mediterranean crop is springing up in the most unlikely of places - rainy, snowy Oregon.

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. Durant has heard plenty of skepticism.

"What are you doing? It's not a Mediterranean climate. These are Mediterranean trees," says Durant, echoing the critics. "This is a Mediterranean crop. Why would you think you could ever pull it off?"

Not only did Durant want to diversify, he also saw an economic opportunity in olive trees. The United States is the third-largest consumer of olive oil overall behind Italy and Spain. Americans consume up to 80 million gallons per year, but produce fewer than one million gallons domestically.

Rough start

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 a meter of snow on his trees. And last year, the temperature dropped to a very un-Mediterranean minus-13 degrees.

A row of young olive saplings, called “whips,” have been planted in a field with more established trees.
A row of young olive saplings, called “whips,” have been planted in a field with more established trees.

"Up here we probably lost 30 percent [of our trees]. Down below in areas it was probably a 90% kill rate," he says. "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 going to come back, are they going to come back? They're not coming back."

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 the next time the temperature drops below freezing.

"It sounds crazy. We're procuring thousands of feet of pipe insulation, and we're gonna put little insulating sleeves around our little trees," he says. "If it's 15 [-9] degrees out, and we can get a few more degrees of cold tolerance, we think we'll be okay."

Durant has a few other backup plans, which include flooding the fields with water to insulate the ground and tree roots and using large fans to blow warmer air from the upper fields to the colder lower fields.

Steep learning curve

But it's not just about managing the temperature. There's a lot to learn about all aspects of farming a new crop, from pollinating to pressing. Durant learned that the hard way, when some of his Arbequina olives didn't really turn out olive-sized.

This arbequina suffers from the “shot berry” phenomenon, producing tiny bb-sized olives as a likely result of poor pollination.
This arbequina suffers from the “shot berry” phenomenon, producing tiny bb-sized olives as a likely result of poor pollination.

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

Durant is 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 says 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 he hopes they'll learn the ins and outs, put more wood on the trees, and build an industry. And when Durant is feeling discouraged, he just looks to his dad.

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

Weathering the storm

After all that trial and error, the Durant family now grows about 24 hectares of wine grapes. And Paul Durant is hoping his olive trees 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."

The Durants just finished pressing more 900 kilos of their olives for oil, nearly double last year's harvest. And they're looking ahead to an even better harvest next year. They've already slipped insulation sleeves on nearly 2,000 trees, to help them weather the coming snows.