A Family-Owned Olive Mill in Arizona

An Arizona family builds a business growing olives, pressing oil and creating personal-care products.

| July/August 2017

When Perry and Brenda Rea visited Arizona with their children on a family trip in 1996, they had no idea the vacation would change their lives. During their visit, the family noticed the abundance of olive trees on the city streets of Phoenix, dropping ripe fruit onto cars and sidewalks. Where the locals just saw trees, the Reas saw opportunity. At the time, there were very few companies making olive oil in the United States. “We thought, ‘Why isn’t anyone making [olive oil] in the U.S.?” Brenda says. “When we visited Arizona and saw how easily and quickly olive trees grew here, we saw a void that could be filled.”

The idea of opening an olive mill also fit with Perry’s Italian heritage, and the commitment Brenda, a longtime vegetarian, had to maintaining a healthy lifestyle. “The olive oil definitely fit in with how we feel about life in general, so it was a lot bigger than just a business decision, but the business part of it fit right in,” Brenda says.

Within a year of their first visit, the Reas packed up their four young children (with a fifth on the way) and all of their belongings and left their home in Detroit to start Queen Creek Olive Mill, Arizona’s only working olive farm and mill. The family started the mill in the town of Queen Creek and settled in to a home 40 minutes away, where the kids would be closer to school and friends. In the 20 years since starting the business, Queen Creek Olive Mill has grown into a 100-plus employee operation, and includes top-quality cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil, as well as Brenda’s line of handmade natural body-care products, Olivespa Home & Body — the mill’s fastest-growing product line.

Growing on the Job

Although they had some entrepreneurial experience (Perry previously ran an auto parts supply company), the Reas didn’t come to Arizona with an agricultural background. Their first step was to take a course on olive growing offered by the University of California, Davis. But out in the field, they quickly realized California growing methods don’t necessarily work well in Arizona. They’ve had to learn on the job, discovering their own lessons about cultivating olives over the course of 20 years, along with help from staff at the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension.

In addition to their evolving farm and business, the Rea family itself has seen plenty of change over two decades in Arizona. Today, their youngest daughter, Joey, 25, helps Brenda run Olivespa. The two older daughters, Este, 26, and Sydney, 28, also help out at the mill. Sons Angelo, 22, and John, 19, are both in college.

“When [the kids] were younger, when we’d give Christmas presents to their teachers, we’d send them a bottle of olive oil, and I think they were a little bit embarrassed at first,” Brenda says, “but the teachers were always like ‘Oh, this is great!’ so they started to understand it as a positive thing.”

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