Inaugural Olive Harvest Builds Community and Climate Awareness

Laura Paisley Photos by Marc Campos

Occidental students, staff and faculty came together to harvest a bumper crop of olives from the Olive Grove on the north side of campus.

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Just south and a little bit east of Thorne Hall, the Olive Grove has been a peaceful oasis on Occidental’s campus for nearly 110 years. Students frequently sit on shaded benches to enjoy lunch or some reading. This year, thanks to a particularly wet winter, the grove’s 20 Mission Olive trees were bursting with fruit. With a newly restaffed Office of Sustainability to help plan, it was the perfect time to organize the inaugural Olive Grove Harvest.

On Friday, November 3, staff members from the Office of Sustainability, Grounds and Facilities joined nearly 75 volunteers from across campus in harvesting about 500 pounds of olives, which will be processed into extra virgin olive oil. Campus Dining provided Mediterranean-themed refreshments to the volunteers.

Olives, a biennial crop, are not native to California, but they thrive in hot and dry conditions. The Olive Grove requires zero irrigation, which means the olives are a highly sustainable resource right on campus.

Associate Professor of Economics Bevin Ashenmiller had explored the idea of an olive harvest with an intern a couple of years ago. When Isa Merel ’23 was recently hired as assistant sustainability coordinator, Director of Facilities Management David Caldwell asked her to take on the project. Occidental Grounds Manager Lola Trafecanty launched an olive harvest at Scripps College, her former employer, and was excited about doing it at Occidental.

There was definitely a collective desire on campus to make it happen, Merel says.

“It’s sad to see these olives go to waste because they have a benefit to humans,” she says. “[Olive oil is] a great product to have and potentially sell to create some revenue for sustainability projects. Plus, a harvest is a wonderful way to bring the community together and raise awareness about our campus landscape.”

After an outside contractor came to prune the 20 olive trees, volunteers dropped in over the course of four hours to pluck the olives from the pruned branches. As soon as harvesting was finished, Merel and Trafecanty drove the olives to Ojai, Calif., to be pressed. The next stop is a bottling plant in Temecula to prepare the oil for distribution and, hopefully, sale.

“It was a lot more work than we thought to actually pull the olives off the branches,” Merel says. “Hopefully it helps people recognize that olive oil is a very special product and appreciate the effort that goes into the production of it.”

Indeed, awareness around the processes that go into local food production was one of the goals of the event. Another was celebrating the presence of drought-resistant trees on campus that can provide shade as well as sustenance to the community. Finally, the event was intended to build community around a fresh iteration of the Office of Sustainability, which recently hired a new sustainability coordinator, Alison Linder.

The Office of Sustainability hopes to continue the event in the future, and sees potential for other connections to the community such as providing research opportunities related to the soil quality as well as making potential improvements to the taste of the oil. The office would also love to collaborate with student groups in the future.

“It was amazing to actually get to participate in the harvest,” Ashenmiller commented. “Some folks sat in groups and chatted; my [First Year Seminar students] said that they actually talked to each other more than they had all semester. Others sat alone, listening to music and enjoying the meditative work. I am excited to think about how we might encourage more participation next year.”

Merel says she was really proud that everyone came together to pull off the event.

“I was hired in August, so making it happen as a new full-time staff member was really rewarding. But I’d also like to honor all the work that had been done prior to my arrival. I extend a huge thank you to the Grounds staff both for maintaining our campus and making sure this event went really smoothly.”