Perry and Brenda Rea, on a visit from Detroit, Michigan to the Valley of the Sun in Arizona, were impressed by the number of olive trees growing around the Phoenix area. In turn, this sparked the inspiration to develop an agri-tourism business: providing fresh extra-virgin olive oil straight from their farm to locals and visitors alike.
Within a year, they relocated from Detroit to the Phoenix area with their four children and the one on the way. They planted 1,000 olive trees in 100 acres in the town of Queen’s Creek, located on the eastern side of the Valley, an area with a long-standing agricultural community. Now, 11 years later, they have over 7,000 trees distributed among sixteen varieties. They are able to grow these on the 100 acres because of the size of the trees, and in Arizona because the main requirements are heat (abundant in Arizona!) and water, which is provided through drip irrigation.
They are proud to say that their farming practices are sustainable, “from blossom to bottle.” Queen Creek Olive Mill does not use chemical fertilizers. T“`hey use composted “pomace,” the remains of the pressing process, combined with the dirt, branches, leaves, and such that have been cleaned from the olives as they were prepared for pressing. Pesticides are not used, but neither would they be required, since the heat destroys the main pest, the olive fly. Drip irrigation and the arid climate prevents mold from developing. Solar panels generate power for most operations. Weeds are destroyed by torching rather than herbicides.
A visit to the Olive Mill should begin with their tour, “Olive Oil 101.” The tours cost $7.00 per adult, and are conducted hourly. At the announcement of the next tour, we congregated with other participants at the “Olive Oil 101” sign. Emily, our tour guide, had worked on the farm for two and a half years, and clearly loved being there and working for the family. She was very knowledgeable, giving a brief overview of the history and philosophy of the Olive Mill, and then she fielded questions.
There are different ways of planting an olive orchard, the low-density method and the medium-density method. Emily showed us the low-density orchard with its higher foliage and exposed lower trunks, which branch gracefully, and the results are picturesque. This orchard just begs for a picnic table under its branches and a family gathering.
This orchard configuration is not practical for even a small-scale operation (although I would not have considered 7,000 trees a “small” operation) because it requires harvesting the olives by hand. Hand-harvesting in this case is done with mechanical “hands” mounted on a long-handled pole. The hands clap along the branches and the olives drop onto a tarp, then are gathered up and sent to the next phase of preparation.
The medium-density configuration, which we viewed next, is effectively olive trees planted into a hedgerow: the trees are planted about nine feet apart in rows, which are spaced to allow the mechanical harvesting of the olives. The machine (if it had a name, I missed it) contains “fingers” that vibrate the branches as it moves through the row, shaking the olives onto a conveyor, which collects them into a container that will be moved to processing. The machine moves over the trees forward and then backwards.
Both of these mechanical methods depend on the way olive trees grow. It turns out that olives are hard to knock off as they are growing, but when they are ripe, the connection to the tree is fragile, making them easy to knock off. Here in Arizona, the trees bud in March, blossom by mid-April, and olives form by May. The flowers are tiny, and if even 4% of the flowers become olives, it’s considered a big crop! The olives grow throughout the summer, and Queen Creek spends from October through December harvesting. As with any crop, determining when to harvest is a skill.
After showing us the medium-density plot, Emily took us into one of the processing rooms, which was nice because it’s June in Arizona and it was very hot already at noon. We watched a video about the operation, and Emily explained how the olives were washed, detritus like leaves and small broken branches were removed, and the pressing. After pressing, the remaining olive material is called “pomace.”
Emily also explained (and my brother-in-law Jerry listened intently) how olive oil is graded, and the meaning of “E.V.O.O.” These letters on a bottle mean “extra virgin olive oil,” which is what Queen Creek Olive Mill produces. It also means that the oil was extracted from quality olives by purely mechanical means – no solvents or heat. Extra virgin olive oil must have a free acidity of less than 0.8% and meet other chemical (absence) and sensory standards to wear that “E.V.O.O.” Positive sensory qualities are fruity, bitter, or pungent.
Oils labeled “Olive Oil,” “Pure Olive Oil,” or “Light Olive Oil” are produced from “lampante” oil, an impure grade of olive oil used in lamps, or from re-pressing the pomace and using solvents or heat to produce the oil. These oils may contain solvents or other impurities such as insect material, dirt, mold, or wood dust. These impurities raise the acidity of the oil.
What should you look for to distinguish a quality olive oil? The E.V.O.O., of course, but also these other attributes will indicate a high quality product: the words “Extra Virgin” on the label (“Extra Extra Virgin” is a meaningless phrase,) harvest and bottled date, a local producer if you live in an olive oil producing area or reliable brand if you don’t, dark glass bottles (light degrades the oil faster,) and nutrition facts on the label. Extra virgin olive oil contains a high amount of monounsaturated fat, more than any other kind of oil.
Queen Creek Olive Mill has a cafe and store. They sell their own olive oil specialties, such as flavored or infused oils, tapenade, or olives, and personal care items made with olive oil, and they sell some items produced by small operations that meet their standards for sustainable and organic products. You can also buy un-flavored, un-infused, but excellent quality plain extra virgin olive oil.
The cafe was great – we “tested” it, and they sell very appealing cupcakes made with olive oil rather than other fats.
If you visit the Phoenix area, I highly recommend visiting the Queen Creek Olive Mill. You can find their website easily, and you can also order their products there if you wish.