Article originally published in A Taste of AZ Magazine
While Arizona agriculture is widely known for citrus and cotton, the desert climate offers ideal conditions for a myriad of crops, as Perry and Brenda Rea of Queen Creek Olive Mill discovered. In moving to the Valley with their five children from Detroit in 1996, they noticed an abundance of olive trees, prompting the decision to try their hand in the olive oil business, beginning operations in 2005. Currently, with 10,000 olive trees on 20 cultivated acres off Meridian Road in the suburb of Queen Creek, family-owned Queen Creek Olive Mill is Arizona’s only working olive farm and mill and has evolved into a tourist destination.
Rea’s plan was not only to grow olives and sell the olive oil to the public but also to educate the consumer on the business by engaging with them and creating an experience around it. Customers can visit the facility, take a tour, shop, and have lunch outdoors on 2-acres of the grove. Some elect to make an afternoon out of it by signing up for the hour-long Olive Oil 101 class. Says Rea, “I used to do all the tours myself and now we have 5 tour guides. It takes you through the history, the nutritional value of olive oil, how to use it, and a tasting.”
The olive farm grew gradually, starting with one small mill and experimenting with testing several varieties of olive trees. Through trial and error, Rea realized the best olive trees for the Arizona climate to be the Greek Koroneiki and Spanish Arbosana varieties. Explains Rea, “We grow the olives, harvest them, process, store, and bottle the oil; we encompass the whole process, from blossom to the bottle.” He also contracts with growers in Yuma, the Imperial Valley, and Chile to supply year-round fresh-pressed olive oil.
In the last 17 years, they have developed an 8,000 square-foot retail and restaurant operation adjacent to the mill where customers can shop from over 500 products, including flavored olive oils and vinegars that are blended on-site. Says Rea, “the blending is the fun part, next to creating the flavored olive oils.” Flavored olive oils include lemon, Valencia, Mexican lime, chocolate, vanilla, and garlic, a favorite during their annual garlic festival held every September. Rea also imports balsamic vinegar from Modena, Italy, to create flavored vinegars like fig reduction, strawberry, cranberry, and maple—a specialty during Canada Week—in addition to spirited versions like the bourbon or tequila cask.
Rea is also a strong supporter of local businesses, offering many local products in the retail shop. “I really embrace a lot of the local producers in the valley because I remember when I was a local producer and trying to get into stores or boutiques, it was very difficult. I don’t make it difficult for the local guys.” Local products featured in the store run the gamut from Cerreta’s Chocolates to Laura’s Gourmet Granola, Valley Honey’s Raw Unfiltered Honey—including olive tree blossom honey—and Arizona wines and craft beer.
A visit to Queen Creek Olive Mill intersects tourism with agriculture, a term referred to as agritourism. “I feel it is important to create an experience for the customer,” says Rea. “After a tour, people would ask, where can I find something to eat. And I was sending them into town.” Sensing an opportunity, Rea started selling four panini sandwiches, growing the operation to an all-scratch kitchen that serves Mediterranean-inspired dishes made with local products. In fact, many of the products sold in the retail space have found their way onto menu items. Popular dishes include platters of assorted bruschetta, cheese and antipasto, wood-fired pizzas, paninis, entrées like pork chops and pasta carbonara, and garden-fresh salads.
Implementing a city ordinance to merge agriculture with entertainment, the town of Queen Creek created an Agritainment District, which includes Queen Creek Olive Mill and nearby Schnepf and Sossaman farms. Rea explains, “It allows us to do some really cool things and keep that historic farming community feeling and atmosphere in place. I mean, where else in Phoenix can you sit under an olive tree with a bottle of Arizona wine or a glass of local craft beer, and have a bite to eat while listening to live music?”
Watch out Gilroy: For information on The Queen Creek Olive Mill Garlic Festival and other special events, as well as the hours of operation of the store, restaurant, and information on tours, check out the Queen Creek Olive Mill website: www.queencreekolivemill.com.
Queen Creek Olive Mill is located at 25062 S. Meridian Road in Queen Creek, AZ.
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