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 microsprinkling 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 Americas — an account written in the 1840s describes an abandoned mission with an old and neglected but still-thriving 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 olive growing 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 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.
A Mix of Cultivars
Because Perry experiments with new trees every year, his records also include notes on cultivars. The Queen Creek orchard currently boasts more than 7,200 trees of 16 different types. The oldest trees are ‘Mission,’ the aforementioned California cultivar allegedly developed by Spanish missionaries. ‘Mission’ is very cold-hardy. Although Arizona growers harvest their drupes before the cold hits in mid-December, they must consider hardiness, because low temperatures can affect the onset of fruit the following season. Severe freezes — 15 degrees Fahrenheit — and lasting more than a day, can damage the trees themselves. Luckily, this hasn’t been a problem for the Reas: “In 20 years, the coldest temperature we’ve ever had was 22 degrees for a few hours at 5 a.m.,” says Perry.
The bulk of the remaining trees in the Queen Creek orchard are ‘Koroneiki,’ a Greek cultivar (and Perry’s favorite) known for its pungent, bitter oil, and Italian cultivars, including ‘Pendolino,’ ‘Maurino,’ and ‘Frantoio.’
Aside from cold-hardiness, another reason the Reas grow multiple cultivars is so they can blend their own oils to create distinctive flavors. For this purpose, they became certified Olive Oil Sommeliers, joining only a handful of others around the world who have been recognized by the International Olive Council (IOC). Blending is more than just considering the broad flavor categories assigned to cultivars, such as “mild” for ‘Mission’ and “fruity” for ‘Frantoio.’ One of the biggest variables in olive oil flavor is the time of harvest. Olives ripen on the tree over a period of two to three months, progressing from what’s known as “green-ripe” to “purple-ripe.” Perry explains, “If I want pungent, herbaceous, and bitter oil, I’ll harvest olives when they’re green-ripe. If I want rich, buttery oil, I’ll wait until they’re dark on the tree.” Green-ripe olives yield less oil, but they hold the most polyphenols (an antioxidant) and have a longer shelf life.
Harvest usually takes place from mid-October to mid-December, and, as for all farmers, it’s a busy time for the Reas. Some parts of the orchard are harvested by hand the traditional way, using rakes; others are harvested mechanically. Olives must be cold-pressed at the mill within 24 hours to meet IOC standards for extra-virgin olive oil. The amount of oil at pressing depends on the cultivar and the time it’s harvested, but 1 ton of olives will generally produce between 20 and 40 gallons of oil. Extra-virgin oil must be stored in tanks that block light and oxygen penetration. Drawing from these tanks throughout the year, the Reas blend oil every six weeks, and bottle every three weeks. Bottles remain on the mill shelves no longer than two weeks to maintain freshness.
Even after harvest, there’s little rest for olive farmers. Arizona’s long growing season encourages rampant vegetation, so pruning is critical during winter when the trees are dormant (typically from about mid-December to mid-February). Heavy pruning encourages fruit production the following season, but it’s labor-intensive and amounts to one of the highest production costs.
To help lower expenses, olive growers around the world are experimenting with higher-density plantings. In traditional orchards, olives are widely spaced in rows 30 feet apart, with 30 feet between each tree. When the Reas started their orchard, they planted conventionally. Today, especially with the ‘Koroneiki’ cultivar, they’re trying what’s known as “medium-density planting.” Trees are planted closely together in a hedgelike arrangement, with rows spaced widely enough to accommodate mechanical harvesters. The planting pattern is for trees to be 8 feet apart in rows spaced 12 feet apart.
According to Perry, planting, growing, and harvesting olives in Arizona is fairly easy, while “marketing is the hard part.” Throughout planting, pruning, watering, harvesting, and pressing, the Reas keep their farm open to visitors — over 500,000 every year. “We’ve been really lucky in terms of agritourism,” says Perry.
The Reas started small, with a modest line of olive oils and public tours of their orchard. Eventually, they converted the original farm shed on the property into a mill building, and added a panini press and gelato freezer after customers complained about the lack of eateries nearby. Now, they have a full-service restaurant on-site and lease the property for weddings and parties. Their busy season is winter, when Arizona attracts snowbirds from northern states and Canada. Marketing to their audience, they host special events year-round, including Canada Week during January. Besides olive oil, they sell a wide range of olive-oil-based products, such as tapenade and pasta sauce, and a variety of other local products. Brenda has developed a popular line of olive-oil-based body care products under the company name Olivespa.
During the past couple of decades, the Reas have watched the town of Queen Creek grow rapidly (the mill is located less than 5 miles from downtown). Concerned about the town’s extreme growth, Queen Creek’s Economic Development Commission has zoned 242 acres as an “Agritainment District.” Perry serves on the commission and, with another nearby farmer, was instrumental in proposing this district to protect and preserve the area’s agricultural destinations. “Not a lot of places decide to set aside a part of the town for agritourism,” Perry points out. In addition to tourists, the new district attracts many locals who are interested in eating local, healthy foods, and meeting the farmers who grow their food.
Arizona’s number of farmers is rising. This is great news for those who prefer local food, but it doesn’t solve the riddle of why more Arizona farmers don’t grow olives. Perry Rea doesn’t have an answer. Perhaps it’s the start-up costs. (Irrigation systems can be pricey.) Or maybe it’s the fact that olive trees are already everywhere in the state, and people tend to overlook the familiar. More than likely, it’s that few in authority are promoting the opportunities olives present.
Back at Queen Creek Olive Mill, the harvests keep increasing every year while the United States imports most of the olive oil it consumes. Olive trees continue to shower ripe, edible drupes onto streets and sidewalks in nearby Phoenix and Tucson. Every fall, a few area folks forage and bring tons of these olives to the mill, where the Reas will press a minimum of 300 pounds of fruit free of charge. The resulting oil is split 50-50 with the foragers.
Just imagine that for a second: extra-virgin olive oil that’s both free and local. Many of us would put up with a little extra sneezing for such a luxury.
Rebecca Martin is Group Editor at Mother Earth News. She wishes olive trees would survive winters in her Zone 6 Kansas backyard.