Think Out Loud

The pitfalls and potential for farming olives in Oregon

By Sheraz Sadiq (OPB)
June 5, 2023 5:47 p.m. Updated: June 12, 2023 8:38 p.m.

Broadcast: Tuesday, June 6

Paul Durant and his family have 13 acres of olive trees in Dayton, Oregon which they harvest in late October or early November, typically, to make olive oil at a commercial mill operating on their Willamette Valley farm since 2008.

Paul Durant and his family have 13 acres of olive trees in Dayton, Oregon which they harvest in late October or early November, typically, to make olive oil at a commercial mill operating on their Willamette Valley farm since 2008.

Durant at Red Ridge Farms / Airen Vandevoort


Oregon’s Willamette Valley is renowned for producing award-winning Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and other varietals popular with wine connoisseurs. But the region is also home to a small but intrepid group of farmers who are cultivating olives, a crop more associated with the Mediterranean climate and hills of Tuscany than the hills of Tualatin.

Paul Durant is an olive farmer and wine maker whose family has been growing olives in Dayton since 2004, and four years later, installed a mill to make award-winning oil from the harvested olives. In April, Durant Olive Mill won three gold medals and a silver medal at the New York World Olive Oil Competition. Beth Wendland is the owner and operator of Coyote Hill, a third-generation family farm in the Tualatin Valley where three acres of different olive varieties are being grown. Olea, a project started in 2017 by Oregon State University, has been helping advise farmers like Durant and Wendland on olive cultivation methods and soil suitability. Scientists at Olea have also planted more than 100 varieties of olive trees to see which ones might best be suited to survive winter freezes. Heather Stoven is a community horticulturalist and small farms extension agent at OSU conducting research for Olea. They join us to talk about the pitfalls and potential for growing olives in Oregon.

Note: This transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. The Willamette Valley is known far and wide for pinot noir, hazelnuts, grass seed, and Christmas trees. But it’s also home to a small group of farmers cultivating olives, a crop more associated with the hills of Tuscany than Tualatin. I’m joined now by two of these farmers along with a researcher from Oregon State University who is helping this young industry.

Paul Durant is the co-owner and founder of Durant Olive Mill in Dayton. Beth Wendland is the owner and operator of Coyote Hill, a third generation hazelnut farm that now also grows olives in the Tualatin Valley. And Heather Stovin is a community horticulturalist and Small Farms Extension Agent for Yamhill County. She is a part of OSU’s Olea Project. Welcome to Think Out Loud, all three of you.

Beth Wendland first: why did you decide to grow olives? As I noted, you are part of a third generation hazelnut farming family. Why add olives to the mix?

Beth Wendland: Well, as anyone who grows hazelnuts knows, some of the older varieties are very prone to the Eastern Filbert Blight disease. And we’ve seen a lot of decline in the orchards over the years despite aggressive maintenance. And at some point, those orchards will need to be replaced. Olives just kind of came in as a side thing where I found out about them, developed an interest in them, a passion for them, a love for them. And when the time came to get serious about clearing some space from the aging hazelnut trees, we gave up about one-tenth of the current acreage, cleared it with the intent to plant olives. And we’ve been doing that a little bit at a time ever since.

Miller: How is growing olives different from growing hazelnuts?

Wendland: Other than a huge factor of the unknown, I actually think people that grow hazelnuts are in a good position to grow olives. There’s a lot of similarities, I’m sure there’s a little bit of confirmation bias in that, but anyone that grows hazelnuts, is very familiar with the alternate bearing crop. And so it doesn’t faze us like it does some people who are used to a consistent crop.

Miller: Alternate, meaning you get a good harvest every other year?

Wendland: That is correct. Yeah, it bears heavy every other year. And so you’ve got to plan for it. You’ve got to know it’s coming and anticipate it.

Miller: But can you plant in such a way that you get a good crop from, say, half of your orchard or grove every year because half of it is gonna come in the other year?

Wendland: You would like to think it would work that way. And sadly it does not.

Miller: I want to think it’ll work that way.

Wendland: Yeah, we want it to be able to work that way too. They’ve done a lot of research with this and a lot of testing. And the plants, even when they plant them in a way that you think would develop over time, the plants sync up. Nobody knows why. Nobody knows how. It’s one of those great questions that all researchers want to know the whys and wherefores of. But the plants sync up and pretty soon they’re all back on the same pattern and even adjoining fields, depending on how close they are. If you could have a field that might have been a mile down the road from you that was bearing better than you in alternate years five years ago and now you’re on the same cycle. So they don’t know if it’s environmental or what it is. But yeah, sadly we’d like it to work so that we could do it the other way. But science is not on our side for that one yet.

Miller: Paul Durant, what about you? Your family has been growing grapes in the Willamette Valley for 50 years. Some of the original grape growers. What made you want to plant some olive trees in 2004?

Paul Durant: I really think it is my parents. It goes back to them. My parents started the vineyard operation here and really are entrepreneurs. And it’s kind of similar to Beth, started looking at the trees and just became really passionate about them, particularly my mom. And so we jumped in and planted a few thousand trees around that 2004-2005 timeframe and felt like we were having a lot of success. And so we went even bigger and built a mill. But then [we] had a series of really tough setbacks through some hard winter conditions. That has really forced us to rethink and re-look at what are the good varieties for Oregon.

Miller: When you say setbacks, you mean trees that you’d established for a couple of years died?

Durant: Yeah, exactly, we had some tough conditions, particularly the last really bad freeze here in 2013, where in our particular planting, it went to nine degrees and that was over subsequent nights. And so we lost a lot of trees out of that. I mean, those are the hard lessons because some trees did survive that as well. So it was a valuable learning opportunity, although a painful one.

Miller: Heather Stovin, how big is the olive industry in Oregon right now?

Heather Stovin: So, it’s pretty small. We don’t know the exact number of growers. I would say it’s probably less than 50. We have a lot of interest and we have probably about 250 individuals who are on our Olea Project olive list who are interested in our events and our research. So there’s a number of people out there that are looking into olives. However, I would say the number of people actually growing olives is probably less than 50.

Miller: So, at this point, it’s fair to say it’s a tiny part of Oregon’s overall agricultural scene compared to hay or grass seed or potatoes or mint for oil or the other things. When I was looking at the Oregon Department of Agriculture’s list of top 50 commodities, it wasn’t actually listed. It was somewhere below the stuff that are the big players.

Stovin: Yeah, absolutely. It’s definitely a niche market that has been growing. So we’ll hopefully see where it can go in the future.

Miller: Are we mainly, Heather, talking about olives for oil as opposed to olives for snacking on or the whole fruit to cook with?

Stovin: Yes, primarily. Most olive growers in Oregon are growing olives for oil. A few are harvesting olives and they will brine them, but it’s less common. More so, olive growers are growing olives for oil.

Miller: And where are these growers based in general in Oregon?


Stovin: Sure. So most of the growers are located in the Willamette Valley. There’s a few in Southern Oregon. But we really have a lot of climate limitations, as Paul had alluded to, that really restrict the areas that olives can grow.

Miller: Maybe this is my ignorance but I would have thought that Southern Oregon, Southwestern Oregon, would be better than the Willamette Valley with hotter summers potentially. Am I off base?

Stovin: Well, hotter summers are certainly part of it and that helps with olive ripening. But you also need to be thinking about tree survivability. And if you have cold temperatures that get below 20 degrees in the wintertime, then you can have dieback or even death of trees, as Paul had mentioned, when we had weather conditions down to nine degrees. And so there’s definitely certain microclimates that are better for olives. And in Southern Oregon, certain regions will be higher in elevation and will get, more commonly, below the winter temperatures that are hospitable to olives.

Miller: Beth, what are the challenges that you have run into so far growing olives in the Valley?

Wendland: Everybody always laughs when I say this, but deer are just killing me up here. In our particular location, we have a heavy deer presence and they are super fond of the feel of the olive trees. And so when the deer are in rut in the fall, we see significant damage. And this last fall, in 2022, we lost almost 30% of the orchard to deer damage.

Miller: They’re eating the leaves or the olives?

Wendland: They are not eating it. It’s the rut where the deer come in with their horns in the fall during the mating time and they’re marking their territory.

Miller: They can feel the trees. You literally meant that. I got confused by that word.

Wendland: No, I can understand that. It is kind of an odd thing and unless you’re familiar with dear physiology, why would you know that? There are acres of hazelnuts around here and they don’t go for those. They go straight to those olive trees and just level them to the ground. It’s kind of hard to watch, but that’s kind of unique, I think, to our area just because we have a high deer presence here. If you were to jump over the Chehalem Mountains over by Gaston, they’ve got that elk pressure there, which I have a suspicion would be a similar problem. Beyond that, I’m facing what everyone else is facing. It’s the cold temperatures and looking at the different cultivars and deciding what grows well where.

Miller: And Heather Stovin, my understanding is this is part of what you’re doing at OSU in the Olea Project. You and other researchers there planted nearly 120 varieties of olive trees in Aurora a couple years ago. What’s the goal of that project?

Stovin: The goal of this particular project is to find cultivars that are most well adapted for our climate here in Western Oregon. Trees in general, as I mentioned, with olives are very susceptible to cold damage. So we’re looking at all these different varieties. They’re pretty much anything we could find here in North America. And we propagated them, brought them together and then planted them in the ground so that we can compare all these different cultivars to see if there’s some that actually do best to survive our cold winters and then produce good olive oil. And so what we’ve done is we planted trees all of the same age, they’re replicated and they’re randomized in the plot. So that gives us the ability to control for different factors, variability in the field and that sort of thing. So we should have a good idea of which ones really do survive here best.

Miller: But how long might that take to get a really good idea for the cultivars best suited to the Willamette Valley?

Stovin: No, this is definitely not a short term project. We’re not gonna be able to complete this in the next couple of years. It’s been planted two years ago now and although we’re starting to get a few fruits setting (last year we kind of had a mini harvest) it will take the trees a number of years to really start producing and to get to their size where they need to be. So it will take a while.

Then beyond that, we also will need a cold spell. In the last couple of years or really since we started the trial or started our Olea Project in 2017, we haven’t had a lot of really cold winters where we’re going to see a lot of olive damage. And so we also need that aspect of it as well. To have a winter where we get down to 12 degrees or 15 degrees so we can really start to see some major damage. So then we can really determine what might survive the best year.

Miller: Paul, what is harvest time like?

Durant: Harvest time, typically for us, is in November and we push it as far as we can to get the fruit as ripe as possible, to get that oil content up, and then it’s always a race. It feels like every year we’re up against freezing conditions to get the fruit off. Anything really below 30 degrees can result in damage to the fruit on the trees so we’re always in a rush. And certainly one of the great challenges with olives is picking them. They can be tedious to pick and you just need to have the right tools and really the right training of your crew to get in there and get the fruit off in a timely manner.

Miller: I have heard that olives in Oregon are harvested by hand. Is that different from what would happen in Greece or Spain or Italy or California for that matter?

Durant: I think it depends on the scale of the operation. I think a lot of olives are picked by hand. And I think there’s some training aspects and how you prune the trees and that sort of thing. But certainly larger operations are machine harvested and that technology is pretty advanced and can really help.

Machine harvesting in Oregon, given the wet conditions where we’re picking is probably never gonna happen, certainly in my lifetime. So it’s really about getting the right tools in the hands of other people that you do have working for you and getting the fruit off just as quick as you can. And we can pick anywhere from 1 to 3 tons in a day, which is a lot of olives.

Miller: Beth Wendland, what is harvest time like for you?

Wendland: Well, I am a much smaller operation. They say they’re small farms. I call myself a micro farm when it comes to olives. But right now, we’re just picking by hand, 100% by hand. And since the trees are still very young, our last fall’s harvest was quite small. And so we were able to press everything by hand. But as it continues to increase and grow, we have a small mill that will be coming, hopefully this fall, to assist with that as the olives continue to get bigger. And this spring, we have good hopes for this fall’s harvest. The spring bloom is looking really good right now. We have a lot of buds set. We’re waiting for them to bloom and see what actually pollinates. But at the moment I have high hopes for the fall harvest.

Miller: And Paul, you’re ahead of Beth, ahead of, I think, most olive growers in Oregon. You also have a mill where you can mill your own olives and those from other producers. You’ve been selling your oil now, sometimes for $45 a bottle, which I can imagine might produce gasps from some people who could go to the store and buy extra virgin olive oil from Italy for, I don’t know, $12 a bottle. What’s the market for your oil?

Durant: I think we’ve put a lot of effort into education. And our market is really people who truly like to cook at home, who really enjoy that aspect of where olive oil can really enhance that food experience. So our market, we’ve really developed a lot of our own following, has been through education talking about why is that bottle of olive oil worth $45 versus you can buy a gallon of it at Costco for a fraction of that amount. So those who’ve really been taking that journey of… “exploration” is what I call it, with the consumer. To really educate people about what goes into it. The whole traceability of the product, the explanation of how it’s made and where it’s made and really how it can be used.

Miller: Heather Stovin, how might climate change affect all of growing in the Willamette Valley?

Stovin: Sure. So we’ve had a lot of interest from small farmers looking at olives due to climate change because they see the increasing [number] of droughts and they see the warmer summer temperatures. And there’s a lot of issues with not having enough irrigation or enough water to be able to produce other crops. So there’s definitely been a lot of people contacting us because of that reason. And it does seem that olives are potentially able to respond positively to that.

The only thing is that with climate change, from what I understand, there’s also a lot of extreme events as well. So obviously we have heat waves and that sort of thing. But we can also have extreme cold events. So if we have something like that, that happens, then it will negatively affect olives. So just because we’re overall increasing with the amount of average temperatures that we’re having here in Oregon, [it] doesn’t necessarily mean there won’t be any potential pitfalls for olives in the future.

Miller: Heather Stovin, Paul Durant and Beth Wendland, thanks very much.

Heather Stovin is a community horticulturalist and small farms extension agent for Yamhill County, part of Oregon State University. Paul Durant is a co-owner and founder of Durant Olive Mill. And Beth Wendland is owner and operator of Coyote Hill in the Tualatin Valley.

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