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Join Nicole and Beau of Le Creole Farms as they discuss growing olive trees for olive oil in the Willamette Valley!
What You’ll Learn
- Why Beau started growing olives
- Do olives grow well in the US?
- How long does it take to establish an olive orchard?
- How to care for olive trees
- Harvesting olives
- Keys to success in olive growing
Beau is a pioneer olive grower in Oregon, and a producer of premium extra virgin olive oil (EVOO). La Creole Orchards is a ten-year operation in the hills of the Willamette Valley in Oregon, currently producing small amounts of EVOO (2019 vintage forecasted to come in at about 30 gallons of EVOO, or about 50 cases/600 bottles of 200ml).
Premium EVOO is pure, super-fresh fruit juice: olives are pressed within hours of being picked (less than 24 hours), pressed without addition of heat or anything else, and our EVOO is unfiltered: some of the vintage is bottled right away (on pressing day), for a hazy appearance, while most of the vintage is allowed to gravity-filter in stainless steel containers, to become clear without filtering). Yum!
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Announcer: Welcome to the Backyard Bounty podcast from HeritageAcresMarket.com, where we talk about all things backyard poultry, beekeeping, gardening, sustainable living and more. And now here's your host, Nicole.
Nicole: Good morning everybody. Thank you for joining us for another episode of Backyard Bounty. Today I'm joined by Beau with Le Creole Orchards and he's here to talk to us about their olive farm and kind of the ins and outs of growing olives and creating olive oil. So Beau, thank you so much for joining me today.
Beau: Well, thank you for the invitation.
Nicole: Of course. I found you on Instagram and I was looking at all of the pictures of your farm and I think that it's very unique that you're growing olives in the Willamette Valley and I was so excited that you were willing to talk to me. And so can you tell us more about your olive oil adventures up there?
Beau: Gladly. So I started my farming venture a little over 10 years ago, almost 11 and I do not have an Ag background. I have a law and consulting background, but I was very interested in being part of this world and what I had in mind was to grow a specialty crop, preferably something innovative, particularly for the area here for the Willamette Valley. And then also a crop that I could process into a value-added product because I thought, well, it would make more business sense that way as opposed to selling a crop as a commodity to try to stay with a product all the way to the table. So that was the thinking that led me to olives.
Nicole: And how did you make that transition from the life that you had before into, into olives? Was there a defining moment or one day where you just decided to do something new?
Beau: Yeah, I mean the transition has been in the transition to adding this venture on top of what I was already doing and I'm continuing to do in consulting. So I didn't do a transition from one thing to another, but from one thing to two things.
Nicole: Oh, I understand. So what about olives was it that appealed to you more than let's say grapes or something similar?
Beau: That's a great question, particularly for this area because as you certainly know, there's quite a lot of wine grape production here, Pinot noir, world-class Pinot noir by the way. And I had thought initially that the land I purchased could be used for, potentially plant a Pinot noir vineyard. When I got into the weeds, into the accounting, into the numbers trying to see how much it would cost to plant one acre of Pinot noir versus one acre of something else, for example, olives, that was a major factor. These days and even 10 years ago, planting an acre of grapes here, ballpark $20,000, planting an acre of olives is probably a tenth of that. But it was also the product itself, extra virgin olive oil, there's something magical about it. There's something extremely healthy about it and a lot of demand in the United States, in Oregon, in the Northwest, in the US in general.
Nicole: So it was basically the combination of the value added, something a little bit unique and then the end result of the olive oil?
Beau: Yeah, yeah. I mean the olive oil obviously is probably the main driver because it's a great product because it is super healthy because there is demand because it is part of a diet, the Mediterranean diet that is one of the better ones, the healthier ones, let's say. So that's what really, really made us attractive. And then from a business perspective, yes, being able to stay, to go from the tree, planting the tree, growing the olive all the way to the bottle and all the way to the end consumer and stay with that olive all the way to the table basically.
Nicole: Sure. Now you know, olives aren't really the first thing that comes to mind when you think about that area. Was that something that.. Did you move there to grow the olives or were you lucky enough to be residing there to begin with?
Beau: I was lucky. I was lucky. I was very lucky to reside in the Willamette Valley. Portland is at the North end of the Willamette Valley. I had moved from California to Portland in 2000 and it's in 2008 that I purchased the land and 2009 that I seriously started this venture. So yes, I was lucky to be here. And then I should point out that there were a handful, probably four or five growers in the area here who had started prior to me to dabble with growing olives and producing extra virgin olive oil.
Nicole: So you know, generally you think olives you think Mediterranean or somewhere a little bit warmer than Oregon. Is there a special breed of olives that you grow there or do you have some unique techniques that you have to use for them to adapt?
Beau: Great question. There is I'd say a multifaceted answer to that. You are correct. I mean olives are associated with warm, dry Mediterranean areas possibly Southern California, but as we know, we know they are drought-hardy. We've seen pictures or maybe we've traveled to Sicily or Israel or Lebanon, etc., Tunisia and we've seen those 1000-year old olive trees growing on rocks. So they were very, very drought-hardy. We know that. What fewer people know is that they can be cold-hardy. And the thing is that there are about, there's a census, so to speak, of about 1,200 olive cultivars in the world, which is a very, very high number. There's probably a bit of overlap among those cultivars. They might be identical, but some people in this village, in this valley of Italy call them one thing, and then in the valley next door they call them something else. But regardless, there are many olive cultivars in the world.
Beau: And commercial production has been, for example, in California, has been centered around maybe five or six olive cultivars. So when you know that there are hundreds of other cultivars out there well then you know that there's potential to identify some that are cold-hardy. So that's what we had to do basically. And this answers your question is we had, myself and the other growers in the Willamette Valley in Oregon, we had to go see what people in Northern Italy were doing or what people at higher altitudes in France or in Greece or in Lebanon were doing. And that's how we came up with so far about 15 Veranos cultivars that we have been growing here that have done well both in terms of cold hardiness. So as young trees, the ability to survive colder temperatures, but also the ability to produce a lot of fruit for low production with less degree days. So there's two parameters there.
Beau: And the last thing I'll say is that a year and a half ago, Oregon State University kick-started an awesome research project called the Olea project from the Latin for olive. So they are looking at the cold hardiness across over 100 cultivars that they have planted at two different sites in Oregon. And we'll be starting to try to identify maybe the perfect cultivar for the Willamette Valley. A little bit like Pinot noir became the perfect grape for this area.
Nicole: So what varieties do you grow?
Beau: So among the 15 that I grow, there are 12 Italian and three French. The Italians are primarily Tuscans such as Frantoio, Leccino, Maurino, Moraiolo. There's a great pollinator from Tuscany, I mean it produces olives obviously, so we can actually harvest a crop from those trees, but it also produces vast amounts of pollen. That's Pendolino. So we have those. I plant a couple of Sicilian varietals because they're grown at higher altitudes. So even though they're grown what we can view as a warmer climate being grown at higher altitudes, actually they are cold-hardy. And then same thing with the French, the French varietals primarily Aglandau, are varietals that are grown at higher altitudes in the South of France.
Nicole: We have a... I live in Southern Colorado here in Pueblo and there's a very strong Italian presence here. And so I don't know that I can necessarily pass it myself, but you've listed a few. I like to go down to the local market and pick up olives from there and I think I'm going to have to make a stop there after this. So with your different varieties, do you experience much impact with the weather? I imagine like with beekeeping there's definitely challenges with the weather and the heat and depending on how much rain we get. Do you have a lot of that as well?
Beau: Yeah. Yeah. I mean it is challenging, still we're sort of on the kind of geographical fringes here of growing olives well most of the time. So yes. I mean we do deal, for example with rain and colder temperatures early in the season when they're fruity, when they're flowering rather before the fruit set and that can affect the crop. We've dealt with occasional very low temperatures in the single digits that have killed young trees. So yeah, weather play, definitely has any impact. But past those more extreme cases, the fact that we get less degree days will impact ripeness. Luckily that doesn't impact the production of extra virgin olive oil in any meaningful way. It will actually give the oil a stronger, more pungent, more bitter but bitter in a good sense flavor, basically make it more flavorful.
Beau: And also there is a bit of a correlation that I've read about in scientific papers between extra virgin olive oil made from olives grown in cooler climates and higher levels of polyphenols in the fruit and therefore in the oil. Higher levels of antioxidants. Basically the good stuff, the best stuff in the olives and in the olive oil. So we might have a slight advantage there actually.
Nicole: You mentioned that the actual ripeness of the fruit doesn't necessarily impact your ability to make the olive oil. So you don't necessarily need long growing days for your fruit to come to full ripeness?
Beau: That's correct. For a while, yes. There might be a few percentage points in terms of yield of gallons of oil per ton of fruit. The main difference if you go longer into the season and you have more hot weather and more degree days, you'll just end up with a riper fruit and with a different taste but not with additional volume.
Nicole: Well that certainly helps I guess, mitigate the risk slightly either-
Beau: Slightly, yes.
Nicole: ... not in full but better than an early onset of cold weather and you just completely lose your harvest.
Beau: Yeah. Well, yes. I mean obviously, and also that's the other thing is that we have to watch temperatures, low temperatures as a hawk as we get into late October or November because we are trying to scrape each extra day.
Beau: But we don't want to run the risk of a quick sudden freeze where we basically lose this beautiful fruit on the trees. A bit of food challenge there.
Nicole: Sure. Yeah. Mother nature can be a difficult one to work with at times.
Beau: Right. Very.
Nicole: And how long did it take you to establish your orchard?
Beau: The current trees, I said the current trees, because I did plant some in 2011 but lost them to very cold winters back-to-back in 2012, 2013 and then replanted in 2014 with better varietals that are more cold-hardy. So these trees have gone through six growing seasons. They were planted, they were twigs that were about 12 to 18 inches tall, maybe with a fork in them. Today, some of these trees are eight to nine feet tall, bushed out maybe to four to five feet in diameter of the canopy and trunks that have a diameter of three to four to five inches so amazing growth in six years.
Nicole: Yeah. That's very fast. Now, what have you found to be some of your keys to success for growing the orchard? Do you have any pruning or any watering or anything?
Beau: That's a good question. We did baby those trees. So this amazing growth that I was describing is mostly thanks to some simple but good cultural practices, agronomical practices. So the number one was weed management. I mean we just kept the large area around this tree clean, very clean by hand cultivation, just the way it used to be done. And by the way, we're talking about here, we're talking about a bit over a thousand trees. 1,055 trees planted over about five and a half acres. So weed management was extremely important. We had them on drip, we continue to have them on drip irrigation. So we brought water right there where it's needed very efficiently.
Beau: We did a couple tricks where we got some grow tubes from a friend who had used them for his Pinot noir vineyard. We cut them because they were, I think they were three feet tall or long, these tubes. And we cut them in three pieces and we use these small pieces to place over the young tree and then created a mound of soil around this very young tree. Now the mound was held back away from the tree by the tube. So it didn't touch the tree, but that mound of soil was very useful, both again for weed management and for, because it was over the drip, the drippers, kept that moisture a little longer down there. And also there was a break in capillarity. So the water that went down didn't come back up.
Beau: So again, it was moisture and weed management and these two were the main ways to baby those trees. And that's why we got this grows. And of course, we did foliar analysis. So every July or August we took samples, leaf samples, sent them to the lab and looked at all the nutrient levels in there. And we did notice and we were sort of expecting it based on reading, for example, the olive growers manual from UC Davis. But we were expecting them to see lower levels of nitrogen and the needs to add nitrogen and we did see that so and we reacted right away to it the next early spring with small amounts of nitrogen that was mixed into the drip irrigation system.
Nicole: What kind of soil do you guys have out there?
Beau: So it's a family that's called Jory, J-O-R-Y, volcanic, very red that you find on hills here and about two to three feet of top soil. It's about 40% clay. But it's a clay that has a very good structure. So it's not... It doesn't compact as hard as other place. And underneath that we have anywhere between five and 25 feet of sand rock or shell that's very thin layers. Once again, that also flushes the water. So even though we get a lot of rain in Oregon, as you probably know it, that water doesn't stay there. It just goes through the soil profile.
Nicole: Sure. So the trees are pretty heavy nitrogen users. Then it's not so much an issue with your soil?
Beau: Yeah, it's not an issue. I mean, and I've considered doing... We had actually seeded legumes in between the rows and we do mow that and we leave the clippings there. And that certainly adds a little bit of nitrogen over the long term. And this nitrogen that we add, I mean I wouldn't call it heavy use because, well again we're being very efficient also.
Beau: So for 1,000 trees per season, we have spent probably $200.
Nicole: Oh, wow.
Beau: Four buckets because it comes premixed and we just dropped the line in there that goes into the Mazzei injector that mixes it with the water and goes into the drip irrigation. And that's the entire cost for 1,000, over a thousand olive trees per year, per season. You know, it's 28-0-0 so it's fairly higher decent level of nitrogen in there. And it's also very efficiently applied because it's applied by the drippers right there at the root system, at the root area.
Nicole: We have a small peach orchard and we have a terrible problem with iron and are very nutrient-devoid clay soil. And I can tell you I've spent much more than that in iron every year for our peach tree. So that's incredible that you were able to keep your usage so affordable. And how are olive trees pollinated?
Beau: They're wind-pollinated and it's really a question of the number of pollinators and the correct pollinators. So for example, if you have Tuscan varietals, well you have to have the Tuscan pollinator for the Tuscan varietals. If you have the Sicilian varietals you have to have one, that pollinator that works for that one as well. And they'll produce a little bit. But obviously, if you want commercial production, then you do need to have the correct pollinators in there. And the same for the French varietals. So out of the three French varietals, one is actually the pollinator.
Nicole: And how much of a yield do you generally get? Just a rough average off of a tree electric.
Beau: Off of a tree? So let's see, the very first harvest a couple of years ago, we harvested the larger 100 trees and we picked about 350 pounds that year. So we came to about three and a half pounds per tree. But those trees were far from the plateau that we expect. In terms of tons per acre, which is what we kind of penciled out, we expect about two and a half to three tons per acre. That would probably be after the 10th, ninth or maybe 10th or depending on the conditions, possibly 11th growing season.
Nicole: Okay. And when you are in full harvest mode, how do you actually go about harvesting the olives?
Beau: Well we harvest them one by one by hand. Eventually we might have to invest in some specialized rakes and nets that we would put a net down around a tree and then usually it takes three people to maneuver the net correctly. And then these three people could comb the tree with those rakes. And there's some fancy rakes that actually have a moderator in them. So you only hold it and it does the job itself basically. Right now, ourselves and anyone, all the other growers in the area here to my knowledge, simply pick them one by one.
Nicole: Wow. Labor of love.
Beau: It is very labor-intensive. I mean that is one phase and that's where very large producers, large-acreage producers from Spain and California have a huge financial cost advantage.
Nicole: Sure. So after you harvest the actual fruit, what is the next step in your production of olive oil?
Beau: Well, the moment you fill the bin and it's ready to go to the mill and you send it to the bill, you know we are about 45 minutes maybe from the one mill in the area here. So within an hour of finishing picking, we send our fruit up there. Last year for example, we finish picking in the dark quite late. We decided to take the fruit over to the mill at 6:00 in the morning the next day, the next morning. And by 6:25 I think it was milled.
Beau: So it's super, super fresh.
Nicole: Do you normally get one harvest a season?
Beau: Yes. Only one harvest a season late, so late October to early November and I don't believe there's any way to get the olive trees to produce more than one.
Nicole: So is there a difference in the olive oil produced in your area versus somebody else's olive orchard?
Beau: Yeah, I think yes. It's an interesting question and one that actually I think deserve, would deserve to be studied scientifically maybe at a university project. Yes, the differences are quite noticeable. And I say that because I have done a number of comparative tastings where I went to various events, set up a table, I had my oil and I had three, four or five different other oils. Most of the time all these oils were from Oregon, from other growers, other friends. And I wanted people to one, know, find out about Oregon extra virgin olive oil, but also see the differences between all of us, our oils. And of course there are no identical orchards in the area. There are differences in varietals, there are differences in sites, in areas within this general Willamette Valley.
Beau: So people were tasting, I poured small amounts in small plastic sippy cups, tasting cups. So they were able to just not dip bread, not pour over bread but simply take a little swig, swish it around and then swallow it. Taste olive oil, just olive oil. And the reaction was very interesting to watch because the people who had never tasted olive oil, people who are not professional tasters, who had not gone to the sensory school at UC Davis for olive oil were describing the differences very interestingly. So yes, there are pretty big differences. And then and even within the same orchard from year to year, the differences in my 2018 oil versus the 2017 were both in color and in flavor. The flavor profiles were very different.
Nicole: So when you taste your olive oil, how do you describe it?
Beau: I describe it as intense. So basically pungent with that bitterness that I particularly like the kind of bites or I feel in the back of my throat a few seconds after taking a swig of olive oil, which you know, you don't typically take a swig of olive oil so, but if you taste it, you will. If you do a tasting, you will actually feel that. If you use it on a salad or to finish a dish or even to saute something in it, you're not going to feel it the same way.
Nicole: Is your olive oil the result of a blend of all of your different varietals or do you separate them out?
Beau: Good question. I have not separated them, I'm waiting to have enough volume, but I do intend to at some point in the next two to three years to do some single varietal cuvées, let's call them. Just small batches of one varietal as opposed to blending everything. I'll still do a blend. Probably the main blend will remain the Tuscan, about half a dozen Tuscan varietals. But I will also... I want to single out a few of them. I have one that's from the Venice region, from the Veneto in Italy, some varietal called [inaudible 00:27:01] and it produces superb oil. And I would like to eventually have enough of a crop to where I can separate it.
Nicole: So is that part of your future plans for the orchard? Are you expanding or planting more trees or what is your future goal?
Beau: I do want to focus on taking really good care of these 1000+ trees and really taking this acreage to its full potential in the next few years. And also it will be an interesting test for me to see, well, once we get to that plateau of production at least 500 gallons of oil, which would be 10,000, about 10,000 bottles of the 200 milliliter type. What do I need to do? How do I market that? I would like to us to go through that test. I do have 30+ acres that I could roll out. So I could expand the olive orchard significantly. Yes.
Nicole: So would you say that olive oil is similar to wine in many ways?
Beau: Yeah, it is similar. It's a true value-added product. A lot of people, consumers tend to sort of to associate wine and olive oil maybe because they've experienced it in Italy and France. Interestingly, the majority of olive growers here in the Willamette Valley started in Pinot noir. They first planted vineyards and produced wine and then they branched out to olive oil and it's an interesting match. I mean there are obviously some health benefits to drinking small amounts of red wine. There are clear benefits to consuming a lot of olive oil.
Nicole: And I know that authentic olive oil is not always easily affordable. Is it something that is adulterated very often?
Beau: Yeah, it has been. And I believe there was a book that came out maybe five, six years ago, maybe more by now by an investigative reporter. I think there was, The New York Times did a piece, large piece about that. A lot of the so-called supposedly extra virgin olive oil imported into the United oftentimes turns out to be adulterated, to be not extra virgin olive oil, to be not from Italy but from other countries. And you know, extra virgin olive oil, I mean that is a very scientific denomination. It's supposed to have a certain acidity under 0.8% etc. So it can be verified in the lab. You know, that high-quality of the highest quality of olive oil, extra virgin olive oil is a name that rings a bell with people and therefore it's been used unfortunately on fake, on much lower grades of olive oil. Now, I don't know if you could hear, but there was a major thunderstorm here-
Nicole: I did
Beau: ... that came out of the blue.
Nicole: Oh really?
Beau: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Nicole: Yeah. Without having the camera, I kind of heard the sound and I thought maybe it was like a dog's nails on maybe wooden floor. And then I heard the thunder and I was like, "Oh well I guess that's a great storm."
Beau: Yeah, it was hailing for a little bit against the wind blowing.
Nicole: Oh really?
Beau: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Nicole: We are not quite so fortunate with rain here. It's very dry here. So as the end consumer, if I go buy a bottle of olive oil that I didn't get from you guys, is there an easy way for me to tell whether or not it's truly extra virgin olive oil?
Beau: Unfortunately there is no easy way. Unless the stuff is so bad that the moment you open the bottle, it just smells completely off. But other than that, no it isn't. There is no easy way for consumers to tell one from the other. The steps that I would recommend would be to buy from a trusted source. Someone you know is knowledgeable about extra virgin olive oil. Maybe it's a boutique, a store or someone who goes overseas to Italy and Spain and France and visits the orchards and the mills over there and then buys their product. Other than that, I would say buy American and even large-scale producers from California that work thousands of acres and it's all mechanized and all that. Well it's all very clean and they produce very good extra virgin olive oil and it is a real thing. So of course the third step would be to buy from small producers in the United States. Whether small producers from California, small producers from Oregon, I believe there is at least one, maybe a couple of producers in Texas.
Nicole: And do you guys sell your product to the consumer or are you more of a commercial producer?
Beau: Yeah, for the time being, I have been working primarily with chefs, chefs and other, I would say other influencers you know foodies, etc., to spread the word, to spread the name like Le Creole shirts. I have given a lot of product away actually to get the recognition because it's very high-quality, super fresh premium extra virgin olive oil. There's no better way to market it than to start to do this early. Small amounts, give them away. Let them try, let them cook with it, especially professionals and then they spread the word. They might put it on their menu and that's how you kind of indirectly, but in a more influential way get to the end consumer by the time you have enough product to actually put on a shelf.
Beau: And I've had a lot of... Also, I've organized a lot of visits to the Orchard, whether chefs from Portland or from Eugene, whether... Actually I had someone all the way from Japan who recently came to to see the trees to see what we've been doing, to taste the product and be confident that it's high-quality, extra virgin olive oil.
Nicole: So what's your favorite way to use your olive oil?
Beau: Really dipping into quite a lot of it. Dipping some bread obviously into olive oil remains my favorite, but probably the simplest pasta, I mean the most just pasta and just pouring a copious amount of olive oil and some salt. I'd say that that's probably my favorite dish.
Nicole: That sounds delicious. So now that we've gotten to know you and your orchard a little bit better, if we wanted to learn more, how could we follow you?
Beau: On Instagram and follow @olivegrowers, you will be able to see updates, regular updates from the orchard and you can contact me through there very easily. The email addresses is there, there's the direct message. That's also a possible.
Nicole: Okay. And as always we'll put the link to your Instagram. I know, I definitely follow you guys. I enjoy looking at the pictures of you guys out there and what you have going on. It's very fun and interesting to follow. So I'm glad that you guys have your Instagram. It's very interesting and I highly encourage everybody to follow your account.
Beau: Thank you very much. I appreciate you.
Nicole: Of course. Well, Beau, I so much appreciate you taking the time to talk to us today and to discuss growing olives. You know, very interesting and unique topic and you're obviously very experienced and well-versed and I really appreciate you taking the time to share your knowledge with us today.
Beau: Well, thank you very much for your patience. That was great though chatting with you.
Nicole: And for those listening, thank you so much for joining us for another episode of Backyard Bounty and we'll see you again next week.
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