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Area farmers betting on olives
In the constant search for new crops that fit the area and fill a niche market, a handful of growers in the desert Southwest are turning their attention to an ancient agricultural product with a promising new future.
With Americans in pursuit of healthier living, there's a growing demand for high-quality olive oil, said Glenn Wright, a University of Arizona researcher with the Yuma Agriculture Center. And it's a crop he thinks would do well here.
“I think there's a big future here, based on what I know so far.”
One grower in Yuma has about 20 acres of olive trees in south Yuma Valley that have been in the ground for more than two years and could potentially have some olives this fall for milling into oil. In addition, there's about 100 acres planted in Imperial County in the Westmorland-Calipatria area that had some olives milled last year. And there's some acreage of mature trees in northern Mexico east of Mexicali that can be seen from the All American Canal, Wright said.
Then there's the Queen Creek Olive Mill, a farm owned by Perry Rea in central Arizona that for more than a decade has been experimenting with different olive varieties to establish which grow best in the Arizona desert. Along with being Arizona's only commercial-level producer at this time of extra virgin olive oil, the farm also offers a unique agritourism experience where people can tour the facility, take “Olive Oil 101” to learn more about growing olives in Arizona, shop the mill's boutique for flavored olive oils, pick up dinner at the Mediterranean bistro or book a special event.
Have olive trees in your landscaping that are producing bushels of olives? Bring a minimum of 300 pounds to the Queen Creek facility for milling.
Visit http://QueenCreekOliveMill.com for more details on Queen Creek Olive Mill.
Wright said he did some quick calculations a couple of years ago and concluded that it would take 300,000 acres of olive trees to fill the domestic U.S. olive oil supply. Currently, there's about 30,000 acres in the country, with more than 90 percent located in the Sacramento Valley in California. West Texas also has some acreage.
But he figures the desert Southwest has some factors to give it a competitive edge for production of high-quality olive oil: the lower cost of land, water and labor here than in California. In addition, frost is less of an issue for Yuma and Imperial counties. High heat may affect quality, he said, but he believes there are varieties that would be suited to this area's hot summers.
He also sees promise in the crop with the increasing demand for olive oil in the United States as health-conscious people turn to Mediterranean cuisine and the growing interest in buying food produced locally.
Yet another factor, Wright said, is that extra virgin oil being imported into the U.S. from Europe and North Africa isn't always of the highest quality and isn't always extra virgin oil.
Wright explained that there are nine grades of olive oil, with only the first three grades suitable for human consumption. Extra virgin oil is from the first press and is the freshest and highest quality with the most flavor and highest level of antioxidants. The second press is virgin oil, typically used for frying foods. The third press has some defects but is still consumable. The remaining grades go for industrial and other inconsumable purposes such as cosmetics.
Domestic olive trees go back thousands of years and are one of the first and most significant plants mentioned in the Bible. It was an olive leaf that a dove brought back to Noah to demonstrate that the flood was over. Olive tree branches are the symbol of peace, and in ancient Greece olive oil was used to anoint kings and athletes.
Homer reportedly referred to it as “liquid gold.”
Perhaps it will prove to be as golden for local farmers in the years to come.
Joyce Lobeck can be reached at email@example.com or 539-6853. Find her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/YSJoyceLobeck or on Twitter at @YSJoyceLobeck.