Local Olive Oil

One small family has built a big business by growing olives and pressing its own homemade extra-virgin oil.

| December 2017/January 2018

  • Over 20 years, the Rea family has grown a small family business in the Arizona desert into a 100-plus-employee operation.
    Photo courtesy Queen Creek Olive Mill
  • The olive tree (Olea europaea) is native to the Mediterranean.
    Photo courtesy Queen Creek Olive Mill
  • Olives thrive in the desert near Phoenix, Arizona, where Perry and Brenda Rea opened the Queen Creek Olive Mill.
    Photo courtesy Queen Creek Olive Mill
  • 'Mission' and 'Koroneiki' olives at harvest at the Queen Creek Olive Mill.
    Photo courtesy Queen Creek Olive Mill
  • The Rea family cultivates more than 7,200 olive trees on a 100-acre farm in the Queen Creek valley, about 40 miles southeast of Phoenix.
    Photo courtesy Queen Creek Olive Mill
  • 'Mission' and 'Koroneiki' olives climb into the mill to be pressed.
    Photo courtesy Queen Creek Olive Mill
  • Perry Rea plants new olive trees close together in a hedge pattern so the mature trees can be harvested and pruned mechanically.
    Photo courtesy Queen Creek Olive Mill
  • Brenda Rea pours olive-oil-based candles at the family's mill.
    Photo courtesy Queen Creek Olive Mill
  • Responding to visitor feedback, the Reas opened a restaurant at their olive mill. Here, patrons eat under shade cast by 'Kalamata' trees.
    Photo courtesy Queen Creek Olive Mill
  • Although intended as ornamentals, the olive trees along Arizona's city streets yield edible fruit.
    Photo by Flickr Creative Commons/Dru Bloomfield

Olive trees line city streets in Arizona. They thrive in yards and cast scant shade in parking lots. In spring they bloom profusely, and in fall they drop ripe fruit onto cars and sidewalks and into gutters. Olive trees are so common that most Arizonans hardly notice them, except in April when pollen causes allergies to flare up. Because olives are so easy to grow in Arizona, you’d think the place would be packed with olive farmers. Instead, “It’s me and three guys in Yuma,” says Perry Rea.

Husband and wife team Perry and Brenda Rea are the founders and operators of Arizona’s only working olive farm and mill, the Queen Creek Olive Mill. Over 20 years, they’ve grown a small family business into a 100-plus-employee operation. Their 100-acre farm lies in the Queen Creek valley about 40 miles southeast of downtown Phoenix, flanked by the San Tan Mountains to the southwest and the Superstition Mountains to the northeast. Empty creeks and washes wind their way through the wide, flat valley, where the sun shines 330 days a year. On the days it doesn’t shine, the skies bless the valley with about 9 precious inches of annual rainfall.

Most crops require a lot of attention to flourish in the desert, but olives are the exception. These desert-loving trees grow rapidly and robustly in the Queen Creek valley. Olive trees should endure some stress to produce quality oil, and that’s exactly what the Arizona climate provides. Yes, the climate is extremely dry, but the aridity discourages verticillium wilt and molds. Pesticides aren’t needed because the olive fly can’t tolerate summer’s intense heat. Olive trees can survive on minimal rainfall, although they do need strategic irrigation to produce plump and plentiful drupes (the Reas use micro sprinkling and drip irrigation). Arizona’s short winters provide the vernalization necessary for bud set — a couple of months of cold nighttime temperatures with infrequent hard freezes.

Olive trees were domesticated thousands of years ago in the deserts of the Levant (near today’s Turkey-Syria border). Spanish missionaries probably introduced olive tree cuttings to present-day California in the 1700s; these are likely the progenitors of today’s ‘Mission’ cultivar, and may have emerged in Peru as the seedling of an unknown cultivar from Spain. Whether or not this legend is true, someone certainly brought these Mediterranean natives to the New World — an account written in the 1840s describes an abandoned mission with an old and neglected but still-thriving olive orchard. By the late 19th century, olives had become a commercial crop in California. At about the same time, some of the first olive trees in Arizona were introduced on the University of Arizona campus in Tucson as part of a program to experiment with plants for desert suitability. Eventually, olive trees spread all over the urban areas as (mostly) ornamental plantings. Sadly, some urban areas have banned new plantings of male olive trees these days because of the excessive pollen they produce during bloom.



Learning on the Job

The Reas have had to learn about cultivating olives on the job for 20 years. Because they lacked agricultural backgrounds, they first enrolled in a course on growing olives offered by the University of California, Davis, but quickly realized that California growing methods don’t always work in Arizona. The couple also developed contacts with staff at the University of Arizona’s Cooperative Extension office, where the focus two decades ago was primarily on grain crops, cotton, and alfalfa.

How do you learn the ins and outs of growing a crop locally when there’s no one to help you? “It’s been a lot of trial and error,” Perry admits. “Every year we learn something different; every year we get better. We still make mistakes, but they’re not as bad as the ones we made the year before.” Perry keeps copious records on olive growing techniques, irrigation, and cold set (how cold affects the trees’ setting on of flower buds that eventually become fruit). He also takes tissue samples from the trees and has them analyzed for deficiencies to determine which soil amendments are necessary for the upcoming growing season.






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