Olives: Rogue Valley’s Newest Crop?

The agriculturally rich Rogue Valley has its fair share of flavors. From pears to wine grapes, this luscious area seems to be able to support a number of high yielding, lucrative crops. With the climate similar to parts of Northern California and Italy, it seems only natural that the succulent olive will be the next boom in this bountiful basin.

Not entirely true, says David Sugar of Oregon State University’s Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center. Of the 60 test olive trees that were planted at the OSU Extension campus in Medford three years ago, none of them survived the cold snaps of the last two winters where temperatures dipped into the low teens. The test trees were donated by Jeff Hoyal, who planted close to 130 acres of the Greek and Spanish varieties on his property near Jacksonville in 2008. He had expected his first harvest this year, but unfortunately, Mother Nature prevented that from happening.

The Local Dish talked to Sugar, Hoyal, and Ken and Susan Muller of Rogue Valley Brambles about the challenges of trying to produce locally-grown olive oil in this lush Oregon valley.

According to Sugar, in order for olives to thrive, location is everything.  “The information about olive growing in general that comes out of University of California recommends avoiding locations where the minimum temperature of the year goes below 15 degrees,” he says. In his observations of the Hoyal plantation, most of the trees they lost were on the valley floor. The trees on top of the sloping hillside they planted on did better, since cold air sinks. Sugar also says that the trees that establish themselves after a few years without a freeze are more likely to survive and be faster in recovering due to the fact that they retain heat better and are not as vulnerable to a harsh freeze. So, if someone can plant and get through the first few years, the chances of survival are greater.

Ken and Susan Muller of Rogue Valley Brambles, a Talent-based family farm, have been playing it safe with their Copper Hill Olive Oil since 2003. The olives, planted by the Muller family, are grown in Yolo County, California in the Dunnigan Hills, and hand-harvested once a year in the late fall. They are pressed right after picking so the fresh, extra-virgin oil maintains the quality and full-bodied taste it’s locally known for.

They grow a number of Greek and Spanish varieties, including Koroneiki, which boasts a peppery, fruity taste, Arbequina, which has a fresh, grassy taste, and Frantoio, Leccino and Pendolino, all of which have a milder flavor. The oil is sold locally at the Rogue Valley Growers and Crafters Market and used at a number of local restaurants. Each variety is available to taste at the market booth and customers are encouraged to bring and reuse their own bottle or container.

Until someone in the Rogue Valley has luck with their timing and the weather decides to cooperate, Rogue Valley Brambles Copper Hill Olive Oil is as local as Southern Oregon residents are going to find. But once you consider the large percentage of olive oils that are imported and how far most all of them have to travel before making it to your table, this oil is practically grown and processed right in your backyard.

Cheri Browne is a writer, photographer, reveler of Southern Oregon and enamored connoisseur of all things West Coast.


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