“Nobody produces olive oil for the first time ever, without any professional involvement, and produces an award-winning olive oil,” said Scripps College Professor of International Political Economy Nancy Neiman Auerbach.
But this year, Scripps did just that. After five years of logistical hurdles, the olive oil-making project borne out of Auerbach’s 2007 Core II course, “Politics and Culture of Food,” finally came to fruition.
The course, which discussed the food justice movement and the use of edible landscapes, prompted one of the groups to question why Scripps’s olive trees weren’t producing fruit and whether, if they were to produce fruit, Scripps would be able to create olive oil from that fruit.
“We had been spraying trees because of the whole thing about the ‘beauty of the campus’; we sprayed them so they wouldn’t fruit so they wouldn’t make a huge mess,” Auerbach said.
The trees needed a year’s break from spraying to fruit again, which was the first hurdle the students encountered. While that initial student group created a proposal that circumvented anticipated issues—how to press the olives into olive oil, what to do with the olive oil, what to do with the proceeds—the administration eventually discarded the plan because it was deemed too risky.
Lola Trafecanty, Scripps’s Director of Grounds, eventually picked up the fight alongside Auerbach, creating strategies that resulted in this year’s Best in Show and Best in Class wins at the Los Angeles International Extra Virgin Olive Oil Competition.
In fact, Trafecanty was the reason that the olive oil was entered into the competition at all. She saw it online the day before entry submission closed and, because the competition occurred at the Fairplex in Pomona, they were able to drive bottles over in time to be considered.
After this year’s success, Scripps plans to continue producing the olive oil as long as they can.
“We were going to do it for the first time the fall before this last one, but we got all set and ready to do it and there were no olives!” Auerbach said.
This year’s harvest, though successful, was still problematic. Scripps’s olive trees are 40 feet high, which is 34 feet taller than the industry standard, according to Auerbach. Because of this height difference, they were forced to use a tree trimming company in order to comply with liability regulations.
“We bought all these tarps and put them down and had the tree trimming company come in and trim the morning of the harvest … We had like 85 people show up in a four-hour period to strip the branches that were all lying there. We ended up picking 1,500 pounds of olives in four hours,” Auerbach said.
Those 1,500 pounds of olives were driven to Ojai, CA for processing, where they created 700 bottles of olive oil. Since then, nearly all bottles have been purchased and there are still requests coming in from across the country.
Beyond the distinction of winning Best in Show, this may be the best indication of the quality of Scripps’s olive oil. Trafecanty entered the olive oil in the domestic, delicate category, where it competed alongside around 300 other domestic entries.
“It is smooth and buttery and beautiful,” Auerbach said.
In an effort to fund future endeavors that are consistent with the values of the initial student group from Auerbach’s Core II course, proceeds from the sale of the olive oil will fund more local and sustainable food at Malott Commons as well as student internships in the field of community engagement and sustainability.
Though the awards constitute a great honor for Scripps, the social issues addressed by the choice to utilize the trees for more than just decoration is the most important, in Auerbach’s opinion.
“I think the best thing is the attention that the college is getting for all of the great work the students are doing around food justice and sustainability and entrepreneurship. I think it puts the college in a great light,” Auerbach said. “Frankly, even if we never win another award, we’ll always have an award-winning olive oil.”