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.”
There are a few difficulties with running a family business, Brenda says, but they try to keep things balanced. “You get around the dinner table and you’re talking business, and that’s not always a healthy thing to do. You have to be able to take a break,” she says. “We try to keep it healthy and have some family time away from the business.”
What’s So Great About Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Extra virgin olive oil — that is, raw, unprocessed olive oil from the first pressing — naturally moisturizes skin and contains antioxidants, vitamins and polyphenols. Squalene, a potent antioxidant, is a key component in extra virgin olive oil — a 2000 study noted that extra virgin olive oil contained a significantly higher amount of squalene than other seed-based oils. In addition to treating skin diseases such as psoriasis and eczema, research on mice suggests that extra virgin olive oil could have a protective effect against skin cancer.
It’s important to note that it’s the unrefined nature of extra virgin olive oil that is responsible for these healing properties. While all olive oils moisturize, the high heats and solvents used to refine olive oil after its initial pressing can alter or even remove the antioxidants and polyphenols. Studies using both refined olive oil and extra virgin olive oil noted a difference in the amount of squalene present, as well as the effectiveness of the oil against cancer cell development.
Not Just for Cooking
Brenda’s inspiration for starting Queen Creek’s Olivespa line started at home. After the family moved to Arizona, the dry climate caused her kids to have mild skin conditions. “One of my kids was in kindergarten, and the teachers had the kids wash their hands pretty frequently at school. His hands were getting chapped, so I started having him wash his hands with liquid castile soap, [a natural olive oil-based soap],” Brenda says.
Around the same time, Brenda was helping one of her daughters make homemade lip balm from a kit. “It called for vegetable oil, so we just used olive oil from the mill, and the result was great.”
Her interest grew from there. Brenda started using olive oil straight on her skin, and noticing the great moisturizing effect it had.
“One day, my husband said, ‘You’re starting to smell like a salad,’ so I started adding in some essential oils and making other products at home, then giving those away as gifts, and then selling them at the mill,” Brenda says.
By 2012, Brenda’s hobby had become a full-fledged business, and had outgrown the original operation space in the family’s home. She moved production over to the mill. Now, Brenda sells Olivespa products at the mill in Queen Creek; the mill’s two marketplace locations in nearby Scottsdale and Tucson; and online, always with a commitment to making great products with simple, whole ingredients.
“Our main purpose is always sticking to extra virgin olive oil and all-natural ingredients, because it’s important to keep our products as clean as they can be,” Brenda says.
For Brenda, the olive oil destined for the outsides of people’s bodies is just as important as the olive oil destined for their insides. To meet the International Olive Council standards for culinary extra virgin olive oil, olives are cold-pressed at the mill within 24 hours of harvest. A ton of olives generally produces 20 to 40 gallons of oil. Oil is blended every six weeks and bottled every three weeks. Because Olivespa products don’t contain artificial preservatives, they have roughly the same shelf life as bottled olive oil.
“Olive oil lasts in the bottle for about a year, maybe a little longer, and it’s the same for our products,” Brenda says. “We don’t need artificial preservatives to make them last longer than that.”
Olivespa’s lip balms and soaps are its top sellers, and the product line also features body oils, salves, shave soap and body butters in a variety of scents. Brenda’s favorite scent is lavender. “It’s great for healing and calming skin, and makes a good all-around oil,” she says. “Our lavender bath and body oil is great. You can use it to take makeup off, as a daily moisturizer, a nightly moisturizer, or even after a shower to help out wherever you’re feeling dry.”
Farming in Arizona
The Reas’ 100-acre farm lies in the Queen Creek valley about 40 miles southeast of downtown Phoenix, flanked by the San Tan Mountains to the southwest and the Superstition Mountains to the northeast. The sun shines 330 days a year, and the area gets only about nine inches of annual rainfall.
While those conditions would be a huge obstacle to overcome for most crops, olives are the exception. These desert-loving trees, which can survive on minimal rainfall, grow rapidly and robustly in the Queen Creek valley. Olive trees should endure some stress to produce quality oil, and that’s exactly what the Arizona climate provides. As a result, the Queen Creek orchard boasts more than 7,200 trees of 16 types, including Spanish ‘Mission’; Greek ‘Koroneiki’; and Italian ‘Pendolino’, ‘Maurino’ and ‘Frantoio’.
The Reas grow multiple cultivars so they can blend their own oils for distinctive flavors and, in the case of Olivespa products, distinctive health properties. Different olives provide differing amounts of polyphenols, antioxidants which aid skin’s elasticity and cell regeneration, Brenda says. Ripeness also changes these properties. Olives ripen on the tree over a period of two to three months, progressing from what’s known as “green-ripe” to “purple-ripe.” Green-ripe olives give less oil, but hold the highest polyphenols and have a longer shelf life.
The Reas keep the operation as sustainable as possible: Microsprinkling and drip irrigation save water; solar panels conserve energy; and they reuse the pomace — solid olive remains left over from pressing — on their dirt roads to keep dust down.
The mill also welcomes more than 500,000 visitors every year. They started small, with public tours of the orchard. Now, they have a full-service restaurant on-site and lease the property for weddings and parties.
It’s been a long, interesting road for the Reas. An idea two decades ago for a small olive oil mill has blossomed into a diversified business. But when asked if she ever had doubts about their success, Brenda says it never crossed her mind.
“I never even questioned that it might not work out,” she says. “Not that I envisioned that we’d end up where we are, but I never thought that we weren’t doing the right thing at any point. Maybe it’s just the power of positive thinking!”
DIY Olive Oil Lip Balm Recipe
Lavender and peppermint are Brenda Rea’s favorite essential oils to add to her simple lip balm recipe. Note to avoid using high heat when heating the olive oil and beeswax, as high temperatures diminish the skin-loving nutrients in the oil. Avoid using peppermint essential oil with babies or young children, as it can cause potentially dangerous reactions.
• 1 tablespoon grated beeswax
• 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
• 1 tablespoon shea butter
• 3 to 4 drops essential oil of your choice (optional)
1. Heat beeswax with olive oil and shea butter in a double boiler or in a glass bowl over a pot of simmering water until melted. Stir to combine.
2. Remove from heat and add in essential oils of your choice. Stir again.
3. Pour into a lip balm tube or tin, or a small glass jar. Let cool.