JACKSONVILLE, Ore. - Between Bellinger Lane and the Old Jacksonville Highway the plantings look like another attempt to whelp yet another crop of wine grapes. But instead, the former orchard land is the beginning of a new Rogue Valley farming venture.
Jeff Hoyal has planted nearly 124 acres of new-generation olive trees whose fruit will be converted to olive oil. Neighbors Robert and Nancy Wartenbergh planted another six acres at the same time.
The first harvest is expected in 2011, although it will take five years for the plants to reach capacity.
"We saw the growth in that industry, and olives will typically grow where grapes grow," says the 47-year-old Hoyal. "As the pear industry is going bye-bye and grapes coming into their own, we suspect olives will be another component of the Rogue Valley economy."
Generally, he said, olives are easier to raise than grapes.
Hoyal paid $2 million for the acreage in 2007.
"We knew we weren't going to stay in pears, there's no money there," Hoyal says. "We looked at grapes, but every 20 to 25 years you have to tear them out and put them in again. The wine business is so competitive that in California there are a lot of grapes being torn out that are not being replaced."
Olive groves usually are planted in warm, arid climates, and newer generations of trees reduce the risk.
"They don't like it below 15 degrees for a sustained time," Hoyal says. "That doesn't happen often here, but when it does the good thing is that you burn them back, cut them off and they come back the next year. All you lose is a year's production."
Sales of high-producing olive tree varieties exploded once orchardists learned of a low-labor system for producing extra-virgin olive oil, says Jack Poukish, business and sales general manager for Sierra Gold Nurseries in Yuba City, Calif., which supplied the local grove.
"When we first started selling olive trees six or seven years ago, we were selling 100,000 a year. We are currently selling over three million trees a year."
American olive oil consumption, because of its healthy qualities, is soaring.
But Jeffers Richardson, operations manager at Nurstech Inc., in Gridley, Calif., says less than one half of 1 percent of the 76-plus million gallons of olive oil consumed in the United States is produced here. California accounts for 99 percent of the few drops of oil produced domestically.
Nurstech's parent company is Agromillora Catalana S.A., of Barcelona, which began planting a new generation of cloned olive plants in the Sacramento Valley nine years ago.
Agromillora's California Olive Ranch in Glenn County produces 25 percent of California's olive oil and can produce 80 tons per hour. Richardson says he's seen olive oil on the bulk spot market selling for between $22 and $30 gallon.
Rogue Valley olive oil would have its own identity.
In the Medford area, he said, "the climate is semiarid, you get good heat in the summer and the soil looks good."
"You're looking at a climate range similar to Tuscany or Northern Italy," he says. "Growing days are different than in southern locations and that yields higher polyphenol levels, the antioxidants that give it a health benefit."
Northern-climate olives will likely be picked when they're greener.
"That makes for good flavor compounds," Richardson says. "The fruit makeup changes over time as it goes from green to yellow, purple and black. If you pick when it's too ripe, you might get more oil but it will be bland."
The Marlborough region of New Zealand produces a superior quality, if not a high yield, of oil, says Hoyal. The yields in Southern Oregon should be similar.
"You get about six tons to the acre and get 40 gallons per ton," Hoyal says.
About 10 acres of olive trees were panted near McMinnville recently, as well.
For generations, little effort was made to grow olives for oil in the U.S. because of production costs. Trees once stood 25 to 30 feet apart and needed special machines to shake the fruit loose unless the groves were hand-picked.
"The labor cost was so high, it doesn't make sense," Hoyal says.
Three cloned varietals grow like a bush on a trellis, which makes them look like grapes from afar.
New high-density trees are planted in hedgerows, allowing 675 trees per acre compared with 120 trees in traditional groves. A two-person mechanized crew can harvest an acre in about 45 minutes, using a modified grape harvester with oscillating rods that slip between branches. The vibrations cause the fruit to drop into buckets.
Planting costs about $5,000 an acre if you do it yourself and $10,000 if you subcontract the work, says Hoyal, who had trellises in place this spring, but wasn't able to put the plants in until the end of August.
The Wartenberghs chose olives after being disappointed with hay efforts.
The first crop isn't due for three years. Sometime next year, however, he will begin developing a processing mill.
"When we were researching what was viable and not viable and what we could earn per acre, we kept coming back to olive oil," Hoyal says. "In Europe, there are families living off five to 10 acres. Olive oil has a higher profit because of the value added than wine per acre, and there is a growing industrial base. Grapes don't have that, other than juice."