A look beyond olives as oil

Olive grove

By: Jacob DeFant, ASU Sustainable Food Systems graduate student. 

In early December of 2022, two dozen students from the new Food Policy and Sustainability Leadership cohort piled out of large Suburban’s, peeling off their extra layers from the early morning as they adjusted to the warm, sunny, and welcoming weather of central Arizona. The students had just arrived at Queen Creek Olive Mill for their next stop during their weeklong course focused on immersing students in the agriculture industry of Arizona. Tired from long days of traveling, the students stretched and readied themselves for another deep dive into Arizona food systems. The students did not expect the unique perspective Queen Creek Olive Mill had to offer on its unique participation in Arizona agriculture.

Meet the Rea’s
In the late 1990’s, Perry Rea, his wife Brenda, and their five children took a trip to Scottsdale, Arizona. They were immediately attracted to the stable and welcoming climate of Arizona. While traveling the area, they took notice of the numerous olive trees thriving in the climate with their large, twisted trunks, abundant leaves, and fruit ladened branches all testaments to the success of olives in Arizona. The majesty of the ancient trees successfully planting deep roots in the sandy soils of Arizona inspired Perry and Brenda to move their family across the country and settle in Queen Creek. The move prompted the establishment of Queen Creek Olive Mill in 2005 with only about 1,000 trees planted on 100 acres. Queen Creek has long been a productive agriculture zone, and with the urbanization of the area, Queen Creek Olive Mill has exploded in size, expanding to almost 10,000 trees with over 15 varieties in 17 years. As their business has grown, their products have diversified and now the Rea’s are able offer more than just olive oil.

Meet the Mill
Queen Creek Olive Mill isn’t your average olive orchard. Sure, it has rows of tightly packed olive shrubs and widely spaced groves of old, twisted veteran trees, but the mill also offers something most farms cannot: an experience. Upon arrival to the farm, you are met with a gorgeous and well-maintained patio featuring a garden of fresh veggies, comfortable seating, views of the orchards and a bustling indoor market. Within the walls of the market are some of Arizona and the mill’s best offerings. Infused olive oils, sauces, unique balsamic blends, local coffee shop, olive oil-based skin care, and a kitchen offering local foods is just some of what the market has to offer.

Olive fruit on the tree

Olives: More Than Just Oil
It is true that Queen Creek Olive Mill makes phenomenal olive oil. In fact, they average roughly 3 tons of olive oil an hour during peak production season. However, what makes Queen Creek Olive Mill so successful is the dynamic ways they have used the farm and its product to welcome guests into the world of olives. If you get a moment to speak with Perry and ask about the farm, he’d tell you, “Sure I make olive oil and make good money doing it, but my primary business is agritourism.” The USDA defines agritourism as a form of commercial enterprise that links agricultural production with tourism to attract visitors onto a farm, ranch, or other agricultural enterprise. Think of visiting a vineyard and that is exactly what Perry and Brenda offer at Queen Creek Olive Mill. Beyond just tourism, the Rea’s have found ways to incorporate olive oil into beauty and skincare products. After moving to Arizona, Brenda notice the family suffering from severely dried skin. Anyone who has lived in or visited the western United States knows just how unforgiving the dry air can be. Using her newfound knowledge and passion for olive oil, Brenda began experimenting with olive oil as skin care. The result was a new independent brand, Olive Spa, that is a true testament to the ingenuity and quality the Rea’s are dedicated to bringing their local patrons and a growing base of customers beyond Queen Creek, Arizona. Fast forward to today and you can find their hand made beauty and skin care products taking up nearly 1/5 of the indoor market with a focus on quality ingredients to harness the nourishing power of their local made olive oil.

Olive Oil 101
As a part of their educational and tourism endeavors Queen Creek Olive Mill offers a tour to the public highlighting their work at the mill, the variety of uses of olive oil, the science of milling, and the quality of their product. The Food Policy and Sustainability Leadership cohort got to meet with Von, one of the Mill’s deeply knowledgeable tour guides. With his boisterous personality maintaining the groups attention, Von shared the story of the Rea’s and Queen Creek Olive Mill while in the garden. He then took the group to a warehouse roughly half the size of a primary school classroom that was home to the olive mill. Shockingly small for the volume it produced, the mill wrapped around the room leaving no corner empty. Von guided the students through the milling process and quality standards that set the oil produced at Queen Creek apart from common oils. Olive oil quality and labelling is an incredibly important aspect of production. Many oils can bare the name “extra virgin” but only some can pass the strict requirements for milling and processing facilities as outlined by various product quality associations like The International Olive Oil Council. Something Queen Creek Olive Mill takes seriously by building in quality assurance practices into every aspect of production, from the time between harvesting and milling, to the temperature of the room. After learning about the high-tech processing and strict standards, the students were able to participate in an olive oil tasting that gave them a firsthand experience of the quality offered by Queen Creek Olive Mill.

Beyond the Farm
Agriculture is staring down a decade of challenges. From climate change, supply chains, and geopolitical instability, those who feed the world will have to find creative solutions to not only maintain their market competitiveness but to also engage the public. Perry, Brenda, and their family offer the residents of Arizona a close look at one solution that proves agriculture can be more than a field and a farmer. At Queen Creek Olive Mill, the process of farming and processing is turned into an experience that leaves a lasting impact on guests through creativity, innovation, and sheer product quality.

This blog is part of a series from the December 2022 Arizona immersive component of the MS in Sustainable Food Systems Program. Students toured the state, meeting with farmers, ranchers, entrepreneurs, government staff, and non-profit leaders.