Oregon’s newest crop experiment, which growers hope will be as successful as Oregon Pinot Noir, may not have survived the winter.
From Dec. 8-11, temperatures around the state dropped to the teens, which is bad news for olive tree farmers hoping to harvest the olives and press them for oil.
The industry is so nascent that the Department of Agriculture is not tracking statistics. There are only about half a dozen growers in the Willamette Valley and Southern Oregon, with a combined acreage of less than 1,000.
David Sugar, an Oregon State University professor in Medford, says the 60 test trees planted at the OSU Extension campus in Medford last June all look dead as a result of temperatures that got as low as 10.3 degrees. Olive trees begin to suffer damage when the temperature drops below 15 degrees.
“They were hit hard,” Sugar says. “They may come back from below the ground.”
Ken Durant, the owner of Red Ridge Farms in Dundee, planted 11,000 olive trees on 15 acres. Four of those acres are trees planted five years ago, which were not as damaged as younger trees. Not sure yet if the younger trees have died back, Durant says they are definitely showing signs of leaf drop.
“If you have the tops die, you have to start over again,” says Jeff Olsen, an OSU Extension Agent in Yamhill County.
While the trees grow back if the roots aren’t damaged, trees do not produce olives until they have grown steadily for three years. “If they are killed back to the ground every year, you would never get anywhere,” Sugar says.
Durant shrugged off last December’s cold snap, saying that 2008’s winter was bad as well, and that Oregon doesn’t normally experience such cold weather. He also admits that growing olive trees isn’t economically viable if the trees die each year. But he’s willing to lose a year or two of production for what he calls a “fun” experiment. Believing that “Oregonians are good to Oregonians,” Durant hopes olive oil, if it is ever pressed in large quantities, will sell well because it is a local product.
“We have guarded optimism,” Durant says.