From Olive Us

Students at the UA are harvesting olives from campus trees to make olive oil.

January 1, 2014

GleaningsIssue 4: January/February 2014

There is no dearth of enthusiasm for local foods here in Tucson, judging from the turnout of olive-pickers for a Veteran’s Day harvest on the UA’s campus. Forty-one volunteers came out and helped rake olives from the trees that dot the campus. When graduate students Angela Knerl and Alex Arizpe got a University of Arizona Green Fund grant to fund the project, they advertised locally that they needed volunteers. “The community was primed for accepting local food rather than letting it go to waste,” says Knerl. “We’re just wanting to harvest foods that are already growing on campus, in hopes of promoting a sustainable campus overall.”

Dozens of UA students, like Ty Trainer, came out to harvest olives from campus trees.

Dozens of UA students, like Ty Trainer, came out to harvest olives from campus trees.

Knerl and Arizpe proposed making olive oil and selling small bottles of it at the UA bookstore, but when they realized that it takes 250 pounds of olives to make one gallon of oil, they decided they would serve the olive oil through UA Dining Services. Knerl says that when the olive oil is used, students will see a sign that says, “You are eating UA olive oil!”

Melanie Lenart, a professor in UA’s Soil, Water and Environmental Science Department, coordinates LEAF (Linking Edible Arizona Forests), a group that helped the students obtain the grant and carry out the harvest. “In this technological age, we’re getting tired of never touching the ground,” Lenart says. “What was amazing to me was how many people were interested in taking part. It’s great that people look around and see there is food in their environment. I think that’s sinking into the larger consciousness.”

The olive harvest represented colossal community collaboration—the Campus Arboretum and UA Green Fund played an important role in allowing access to the trees, and Queen Creek Olive Mill processed the olives. LEAF already collaborates with Iskashitaa Refugee Network to harvest citrus on campus and with the Campus Arboretum to harvest mesquite pods. Mesquite flour has already been incorporated into the UA Dining Services to feed students.

While harvesting on campus may fit with the modern local, low-carbon-footprint ethos, the practice actually dates back to at least the 1970s, recalls Joseph Patterson, Ph.D., founder of Desert Survivors. He remembers a fellow graduate student from Crete marveling at all the olive trees on campus that no one seemed to pick. “He said, ‘In Crete, if you have bread, olive oil, and olives, you’re considered rich!’” So Patterson and a gaggle of other grad students helped gather and brine olives. “It was a lot of fun and they tasted great too,” Patterson says. “I’m glad to see it being revived.”

They collected almost 400 pounds to press into olive oil.

They collected almost 400 pounds to press into olive oil.

Patterson, who went on to forge a career out of helping developmentally disabled find “real work for real pay,” working with plants for Desert Survivors, echoes Lenart’s views of the stifled modern condition. “People need those primitive human behaviors. Doing things in the dirt with our hands is probably wired into our brainstems. There’s a lot of good sensory feedback—smells and touch and sounds,” he says. “I’m convinced that if we measured the blood pressures and heart rates of people who garden and people who live the crazy modern life, those who work in the soil have a much more healthy lifestyle.” To learn more, viist ✜

The bounty at the University.

The bounty at the University.

Baja Arizona loyalists brace yourselves: Queen Creek Olive Mill sits on the north side of the Gila. What then could possibly possess three Tucsonans to load up a University of Arizona truck with a 392 pounds of Tucson heirloom olives and make the hour and a half drive north?

For starters, Queen Creek Olive Mill is Arizona’s only working olive mill and farm. “We considered the idea of purchasing a mill and trying to produce oil ourselves but cost and the issues of running and storing a mill turned us off,” says Alex Arizpe, a graduate student at the UA in natural resource management.

What made more sense to the student group was Queen Creek’s Co-Op Pressing Program. Co-op pressing only happens during olive harvest season, which runs from October to December. To qualify, olives must be harvested directly from the tree, delivered to the mill within 24 hours of harvest, consist of a 60 percent green and purple mix, and hit a 300-pound minimum. Under the co-op program Queen Creek cold presses olives at no cost but retains 50 percent of the oil.

For more than a decade Queen Creek Olive Mill has been sustainably growing olives at the base of the San Tan Mountains and pressing artisan oils. For Queen Creek, location is key. The northern flood plain of the Gila River is extremely fertile and the desert Southwest is devoid of olive insect predators, which makes pesticide-free production a no-brainer.

Lucky for us in Baja Arizona, Queen Creek Olive Mill recently opened Oils and Olives at La Encantada, bringing their northern grown olives and handcrafted oils south across the Gila into Tucson.

— Moses Thompson

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