Arizona olive grower Perry Rea wears a headful of hats – farmer, owner, master blender, sommelier, irrigator, quality inspector, and many more - pretty good for a first generation agricultural producer.
About a dozen years ago, Rea sold his successful auto part supply business providing original brake lines and such for the Big Three automakers in Detroit, plus Mercedes and Nissan, to pursue a new venture linked to his Italian heritage – the olive oil business.
Fast forward to this fall as Perry and his wife Brenda are celebrating the 10th anniversary of their Queen Creek Olive Mill (QCOM) in the town of Queen Creek, located about 45 minutes southeast of Phoenix.
The 100-acre operation includes 25 acres of olive trees - 16 varietals total – mostly Koroneiki, Mission, and Frantoio. The site includes a retail store, restaurant, and land leased for cotton production – ground available for future olive expansion.
The QCOM also has retail stores in Phoenix, Scottsdale, and Tucson.
Many agritourism businesses across the nation draw customers three-to-four months a year, In the Rea’s case, their metro-Phoenix olive oil business draws a half million visitors annually, drawn from the nation’s eighth largest city plus a slew of visitors who visit or spend the winter months in the warmer Arizona desert.
The shift from auto parts to olive oil took several years to realize. After selling the Detroit-area auto parts business, the Reas sought a new business venture. While vacationing in Scottsdale (near Phoenix) in the early 2000s, they noticed olive trees growing in the urban landscape.
Perry and Brenda talked – a lot! After flying back to Michigan, Brenda posed the question, “Why don’t we make olive oil in Arizona?” Perry was on board and the quest began about possibly farming the pome fruit.
Extensive research followed to determine if commercial olive production was even feasible in the desert, much less economical. There were no no commercial olive growers in the Grand Canyon State.
Perry traveled to California to meet and pick the brains of olive growers. He then flew more than 4,600 miles to Italy to pick the brains of Italian olive growers. Once convinced that growing olives in Arizona could work, he participated in the University of California Olive Center’s Master Milling Short Course.
Today, the Reas are one of the first commercial olive growers in Arizona and the first to operate an olive mill – the only such commercial mill in the state. The family presses 100 percent of its own olive production into extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), plus processes olives grown by the Robby Barkley family in Yuma County.
The Reas occasionally press olives grown at Saint Anthony's Greek Orthodox Monastery in nearby Florence. Over the last 15 years, the Reas have sourced olives as needed from California growers to create EVOO, including Mission olives grown in the Southern California desert.
Perry Rea’s first olive planting, including Mission and Frantoio, was in Eloy located further south of Phoenix. He later moved the trees to the Queen Creek site. Today, the 25-acre site includes 15 acres grown in conventionally-planted grove and the other 10 in a medium density-planted grove.
“Most olive growers are going with medium density plantings today due to expensive harvesting costs,” Rea said. “I’m considering transitioning my conventional grove to medium density.”
He added, “We have to be competitive with European olive growers so all of our olives are now mechanically harvested.”
Art of growing olives in the desert
Rea’s conventional grove includes about 2,500 trees planted in 18X18 feet spacing or 20X20 feet spacing. The four-year-old medium density plantings include rows 12 feet apart by 9 feet between the trees.
The overall yield average for both plantings is 3-5 tons of olives per year per acre.
Rea said, “In Arizona, it’s not so much how many trees you have but how you prune the trees to give the maximum number of olives on the available foliage.”
QCOM olives produce about 6,000 gallons of EVOO annually, plus oil for concentrates to make lemons oils plus other infused and co-pressed oils.
Olive is an alternate bearing crop. Rea tries to minimize the yield differences between the back-to-back production years by using pruning practices. 2015 is an ‘off year’ so yields this year were lighter.
He’ll likely buy oil from the California Olive Ranch based in Chico to augment his oil needs.
The olives sold in jars in the onsite retail store are cured olives from the monastery in Florence, or co-packed olives stuffed using Rea’s recipes provided by two California growers.
Bloom this year was around April 15 with the crop set into early May. Harvest generally begins in early October and wraps up by mid-December. The growing season was about two weeks earlier than average.
California tops in U.S.
California is the nation’s largest olive grower producing about 97 percent of the U.S. crop, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture (2013 figure). California olives are grown on about 40,000 acres, yielding about 4.15 tons per acre. 2013 tonnage totaled about 165,000 tons with an economic value of about $136 million.
Arizona is the new kid on the block, olive wise, with fewer than 200 acres of commercial olives grown.
The lack of pests and diseases helps makes Arizona a good place to grow olives. Rea says the olive fruit fly, found in northern California, is not a problem in desert-grown olives. In addition, olive knot disease is not an issue for Rea due to the low humidity in the desert.
Other good reasons to grow olives in Arizona, Rea says, include water availability and less expensive land compared to California. A fully mature, traditionally-planted olive grove requires about three acre feet of water annually.
In addition, the olive tree is a desert plant so it thrives in the extreme desert heat. Rea says the Arbosana, Arbequina, and Koroneiki grow well in the desert. He calls the Mission variety more cold hearty and more alternate bearing.
Soils at the QCOM farm are a fertile sandy loam since the farm is located near the Queen Creek wash.
Gophers shift change to sprinklers
Besides rare rainfall in the desert, the farm’s primary water source is Colorado River surface water delivered through the Central Arizona Project. While the farm has been mostly irrigated using subsurface drip, major problems with gophers pushed Rea six years ago toward micro sprinklers with one sprinkler two feet from each tree.
“I believe micro sprinklers give the trees a better opportunity to spread their roots since the sprinkler water distribution generates better water coverage.”
With micro sprinklers, the only occasional rodent is a nibbling rabbit.
Nutrition wise, Rea conducts leaf sample analyses twice per year. Based on the results, the only macronutrient occasionally applied is nitrogen. Most of the needed N is naturally delivered by water.
On the micronutrient side, “We may give the tree a shot of boron or phosphorus as needed.”
The Queen Creek area was once a vegetable-growing area including lettuce, carrot, and potato.
Olive trees are mostly pollinated by air yet about 5 percent of Rea’s acreage is planted with a pollinator to help increase yield.
QCOM-produced oils sold at the onsite store and online include specialty oils infused with oil from lemon, blood orange, lime, basil, and rosemary. Last year, Rea experimented with mandarin and tangelo oil; both became customer favorites.
He also produces five vinegars and is now working with several grape growers to convert wine into vinegar.
Of the different products produced on the operation, Rea is perhaps most proud of the quality of his EVOO.
“I’m really careful about insuring that my extra virgin olive oil is indeed extra virgin olive oil,” Rea says.
Critical to reaching this threshold is timing the harvest, the critical processing stage, storage, and bottling. Every QCOM olive oil bottle includes the harvest and processing dates on the label.
Critical to the EVOO success is Rea’s hands-on approach.
“I am the only one who supervises the production and blending of all the oils,” Rea noted. “I take pride in following and exceeding the International Olive Oil Council requirements and criteria to create true extra virgin olive oil.”
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