By Nathalie Hardy • Columnist • 

Planting seeds, cultivating connections

He laughed at the memory as he introduced his family’s agricultural enterprise to a delegation of economic development representatives from various winegrowing regions, including the Willamette Valley, Columbia Gorge, Rogue and Umpqua valleys and Walla Walla region. It included many county commissioners, the mayor of Salem, several educators and an array of economic development representatives from those regions.

The whirlwind tour was co-sponsored by Chemekta Community College, the McMinnville Economic Development Partnership, Pacific Power and Yamhill County. The focus was on the economic development opportunities stemming from the wine industry, said Jody Christensen of MEDP.

As the group gathered for a tour of the state’s only olive press, it found itself surrounded by proof that Durant’s olive trees did, in fact, take fertile root. Today, his operation features 13,000 Arbequina olive trees arranged in neat rows encompassing 17 acres.

In addition to a winegrape vineyard and olive orchard, Ken and Penny Durant’s Red Ridge Farms features a nursery and a gift shop carrying everything from honey to gourmet salt.

Son Paul, who plays an integral role in the operation himself, said the family undertook four custom olive-milling operations last year. He said it’s similar to taking on a custom-crush wine customer.

He said it’s something the family hopes to begin doing on a much larger scale eventually.

In the industry, that’s called “value added ag.” And value-added is a virtual mantra with economic development advocates.

When they discuss leveraging the wine industry for further economic development, that’s exactly the kind of thing they have in mind, said Erik Andersson, economic development manager at Pacific Power. 

Andersson has worked in economic development for more than two decades. Prior to Pacific Power, he was in economic development for Jefferson County and the state of Oregon.

He said engaging with people like those in this group keeps his job exciting, and he’s still learning new things. In fact, he said he had an epiphany on the last day of the tour exemplified as he observed the Durant’s agriculturally based enterprise.

Andersson said Red Ridge represents what’s possible when people “stop reaching for the next big thing and embrace the opportunities that already exist in the community.” He said, “Sometimes when people are looking for the next big project, they miss the small opportunities that can mean big things for smaller communities.”

Now, he noted, a Portland ice cream company, Salt & Straw, has begun using Durant olive oil in its product. That’s a textbook example of the “urban-rural connections” he preaches at economic development conferences, he said.

“They are entrepreneurs making a business out of something tangential to wine,” he said. “It’s the same with Lynette’s jams,” he said, referring to Lynette Shaw, creator of the Carlton-based Republic of Jam. 

Shaw joined the group as a representative of the Carlton Business Association.

She had an opportunity to meet Penny Durant, and told her one thing missing from her extensive gift shop inventory was locally made jam. That led to an exchange of business cards.

“We have all these successful projects in regions that start with a strong partnership,” Andersson said. “To have representatives from industry, education and local government in the room at the same time always creates an opportunity to connect those different perspectives to find some really good ways to leverage what they’re all doing to provide a greater impact by partnering with some non-traditional partners.”

“I’m just so inspired.”

Ken Durant felt equally inspired — to the point where he sent each delegate home with a sample of his high-end olive oil.

“After all, what do you really need?” he said. “A loaf of bread, a good bottle of red wine and great olive oil. If you have that, life is good.”

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