Arizona Olive Oil Operation

Commercial product, education and entertainment

Queen Creek Olive Mill, Queen Creek, Ariz., ( just outside Phoenix, owned by Perry and Brenda Rea, is a working olive farm producing extra virgin olive oil that is sold commercially and chosen by numerous upscale restaurants throughout the Valley of the Sun. At the same time, the working farm offers opportunities to see olive groves, harvest procedures and oil production and enjoy entertainment.

About 4,500 gallons of extra virgin olive oil are produced annually. An on-site market sells the high-grade extra virgin olive oil in 250 and 500-milliliter bottles. The oil is also sold in 1-gallon containers.

Historical look at olive oil

Olives originated in central Asia, according to some sources, and made their way to the Mediterranean countries. They were brought to the New World by Spanish missionaries and were grown in the Southwest, particularly by Franciscan missionaries as they moved north. Commercial production of olive oil began in the U.S. in the 1800s.

Concern about the quality of imported olive oil has come from a number of industry-related corners. A study by the University of California at Davis Olive Center indicated that approximately 70 percent of imported extra virgin olive oil found in the state of California failed tests to be properly labeled extra virgin. Although the study was not without controversy, and was challenged by the International Olive Oil Council, the California Olive Oil Council worked hard to spur the updating of USDA labeling standards for imported olive oil.

With outdated labeling regulations having no changes since 1948, USDA labeling requirements for extra virgin olive oil are welcomed by the fledgling U.S. olive oil industry. Olive oil labeled Extra Virgin Olive Oil must meet California Olive Oil Council standards, requiring a free acidity level no higher than .8 percent.

“One of the challenges to the U.S. olive oil industry is that these standards are voluntary,” noted Dan Flynn, executive director for the UC Davis Olive Center. Olive oil labeled extra virgin is subject to meeting testing standards only if a seal from USDA is requested.

From table olives’ beginning

Rob Holmes, Queen Creek Olive Mill general manager, said, “About 99 percent of olive oil produced in the U.S. is from California, and a small number of olives are grown in Arizona and Texas.” Queen Creek Olive Mill had its beginnings in a traditional table olive venture in Eloy, Ariz. Although that venture did not develop as planned, it provided the basis for the new operation.

Holmes said, “Perry moved 800 trees up to Queen Creek in 1999. It was sort of a hobby.” The hobby has grown tremendously, and currently 2,100 trees are growing at the Queen Creek operation, with 1,200 mature trees producing fruit.

Only extra virgin olive oil is produced. “We produce a Tuscan variety of olive oil, which has a fruity start, grassy tones and a peppery finish,” Holmes said. Although 16 varieties of olives are grown, primary varieties are Italian varieties Pendolino, Grappolo, Frantoio, Lucca and Mission, which is purchased from a California grower. Italian varieties are started with rootstock, and trees brought in for planting are retained under 50 percent nylon net shade for transition to their new environment before planting.

Growing olives and producing oil

Because the desert environment is not conducive to pests and diseases, sustainable farming practices are employed at Queen Creek Olive Mill. No pesticides are used, and waste products are composted.

New Magma Water Company provides irrigation water to a pond, and an underground drip irrigation system is used to water the trees. Water pumped from the pond is carried to the groves in PVC pipes, and underground emitters provide needed irrigation. “Olive trees don’t use a lot of water compared to citrus or cotton crops,” Holmes noted.

Extra virgin olive oil must be cold-pressed, or a more contemporary term, expeller-pressed. While many factors are involved in producing high-quality extra virgin olive oil, Holmes emphasized that four elements are essential:

<0x2022> Use only olives picked within 24 hours

<0x2022> Use no fallen olives, which mean overripe fruit

<0x2022> Use only a mechanical extraction – no heat or solvents

<0x2022> Maintain a free acidity lower than .8 percent required to label extra virgin

The free acidity index is actually a freshness index; the lower the number, the fresher the oil. Queen Creek Olive Mill typically maintains an index of .3 percent. “The index tells us whether we are doing a good job of getting the olives and oil from the farm to the table,” Holmes said.

“Perry does the blending,” Holmes said. Different varieties are used to obtain the Tuscan-style extra virgin olive oil in the preferred blend. Various specialty extra virgin olive oils are produced and include citrus, garlic, chili and other flavors.

Queen Creek Olive Mill olives are harvested in October and November. Olives are raked from the trees onto the ground and are dumped into 1,000-pound bins that are carried on pickup trucks. They are taken into the processing plant where they are deleafed and the oil expelled.

Holmes said, “We use two Oliomio 350 expeller presses. The products are built by Italian Oliomio Machinery and distributed throughout the world. They provide a continuous flow process for expelling oil from olives, a process that previously was available only in large, commercial sizes with high price tags. The small models sell for about $19,500 and are shipped from Italy.”

Queen Creek offers a co-op olive pressing program for individuals who wish to obtain oil from their own, noncommercially produced olives. The program requires a 300-pound minimum, and oil is shared 50/50.

A harvest festival that runs from mid-October to mid-November features wine tasting, local product vendors and live music. Tours of the harvesting and extraction processes are offered.

As in many agritourism businesses, Queen Creek Olive Mill is not only a commercial olive oil producer and an entertaining attraction for visitors to the valley, it also provides a boost to the olive oil industry.

“Agritourism helps the olive oil industry by educating consumers about olive oil and the range of varieties. They can see how olive oil is produced,” Flynn said.

Looking ahead

An understanding of exactly what extra virgin olive oil is and better labeling of imports will allow the domestic industry to become more competitive. As consumers gain an understanding of the differences between olive oil labeled extra virgin that actually does not meet the quality standards and domestically produced extra virgin olive oil that meets standards and is a better product, the domestically produced extra virgin olive oil will be better able to compete in the marketplace.

“The domestic olive oil industry will grow in the coming years as newly planted orchards begin producing and mechanical harvesting takes place,” Flynn said. Mechanical harvesting is expected to make its way into the production process with increased high-density planting. Although high-density olive planting has currently been developed for the table olive industry, with three varieties cloned specifically for high-density planting, Flynn said that high-density plantings has implications for the olive oil industry as well.

A less-intensive high-density planting model has been developed that will allow mechanical harvesting of current varieties used in olive oil production. Because harvest costs represent about 60 percent of crop costs, lowering harvest costs will result in the ability of the industry to grow.

Queen Creek Olive Mill continues to offer its high-quality extra virgin olive oil sales combined with consumer education, unique shopping experiences and enjoyment.

Nancy Riggs is a freelance writer and frequent contributor. She resides in Mount Zion, Ill.