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'Local' oil for a change

Rows of bottles ready to catch viscous amber liquid aren't the most eye-grabbing display at the Rogue Valley Growers and Crafters Market.

Shoppers, however, have only to taste Copper Hill olive oil to linger a little longer at Ken and Susan Muller's stall. Hailing from Woodland, Calif., the two oils aren't local products, per se, but they're as close as Rogue Valley "locavores" can expect.

"That was one of the specialty items we allowed in," says market manager Mary Ellen DeLuca. "We thought it would be great for the community."

No mere middlemen, the Mullers — he's 27 and she's 31 — are greasing the wheels of a small, family-owned business by selling oil directly to customers in Southern Oregon. Ken Muller's family planted olive groves in 2003 instead of wine grapes, which had suffered setbacks in value. Eight and a half acres of olive trees produce between 1,500 and 2,000 gallons of oil per year, Muller says.

"It seemed like there was a lot of room to expand the market for domestic olive oil," Muller says.

When the first olives were pressed in 2006, the Mullers already had plans to raise organic chickens in Talent. Incorporating the oil into their concept of a diversified farm only requires the Mullers to pick up barrels of oil a few times a year, store it and bring it to market with their farm-fresh eggs. Both varieties of oil — Spanish arbequina and Greek koroneiki — sell for $11.50 per half-liter. The Mullers give a discount to customers like Jewel Noonan, of Ashland, who reuse their own bottles.

"It's fresh, and we love supporting the local growers," Noonan says.

"It's right out of the orchard," adds her husband, Kent Noonan.

Although the orchard is hundreds of miles away, the oil has fewer "food miles" on it than most alternatives available in the Rogue Valley, Ken Muller says, adding that about 99 percent of olive oil consumed in the United States is imported.

"Well, it's better than Italy," he says.

Regions that historically grow wine grapes also grow olives, Muller says. Large areas of the United States, particularly those with well-drained soils, are suited to olive groves, he adds.

Although its climate is colder than ideal, Southern Oregon already is home to at least 130 acres of olive trees. Jeff Hoyal and neighbors Robert and Nancy Wartenbergh planted groves last year between Bellinger Lane and old Jacksonville Highway east of Jacksonville. The first harvest is expected in 2011, followed by efforts to market the oil at the local level.

"Maybe in a few years, we'll have Southern Oregon olive oils," Muller says. "But right now, Northern California is as close as you're going to get."

Northern California hosts the few retail outlets that carry Copper Hill olive oil. But the Mullers figure they have an advantage selling at farmers markets because people tend to be leery of purchasing a high-end oil without tasting it first. At the Mullers' stall, customers can compare the flavors of grassy arbequina and the milder koroneiki, the more popular of the two. A busy market yields five to six gallons of olive-oil sales, the Mullers say.

"It's really catching on," Susan Muller says.

Several local restaurants have signed on for wholesale. Try Copper Hill olive oil at Larks Home Kitchen Cuisine, The Peerless Restaurant and Standing Stone Brewing Co. in Ashland and The Garden Bistro at McCully House in Jacksonville. The Mullers recommend using their oil in pestos and for dipping bread, dressing salads and marinating meats to fully appreciate its flavor.

Reach Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail slemon@mailtribune.com.

Copper Hill olive oil from Northern California is sold directly to customers at the Rogue Valley Growers and Crafters Market in Medford and Ashland. - Bob Pennell