Olive oil infused with Wildcat spirit could soon be on the menu at the University of Arizona.
For the first time this year, dozens of olive trees shading UA’s campus will be harvested to make bottled oil that can be advertised at football games, sold in the bookstore and served in campus eateries.
Mesquite and citrus trees also are being harvested in a pilot project to glean edibles from the UA landscape.
Prickly pear, saguaro fruit and dates could be added in future years, depending on the success of the initial efforts.
“It’s an idea whose time has come,” said Melanie Lenart, an adjunct professor in UA’s department of soil, water and environmental science, who is overseeing the effort.
So-called green projects, such as rainwater harvesting, composting and use of solar energy, have mushroomed on campus over the last decade, while a trend toward locally-grown food also has taken root, Lenart noted.
“This is a potential food source that’s been going to waste,” she said of the tree products.
Mesquite-pod collection started a few years ago on campus, and flour milled from the beans has already been used in baked goods produced by UA Dining Services, she said.
The olive and citrus harvests are new this year.
UA has about 280 olive trees on campus that are capable of bearing fruit, said Angela Knerl, a graduate student in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment involved in the olive-oil project.
Olive trees typically are sprayed to prevent fruiting, in order to avoid squishy messes on campus sidewalks. This year, UA’s Facilities Management Department agreed to leave about 50 trees unsprayed for a test harvest.
Knerl said it takes 250 to 300 pounds of olives to produce a gallon of oil. This year’s harvest could produce anywhere from 20 to 75 gallons, according to a written proposal for the project. Each gallon fills about 16 eight-ounce bottles.
The olives should be ready by early November and must be harvested by hand. Those that fall to the ground can’t be used for oil and instead go into the campus compost heap.
UA is working with an olive mill in Queen Creek that makes gourmet oils. The fruits must be delivered for pressing within 24 hours of harvest, Knerl said.
The citrus harvest — UA has about 250 citrus trees on campus — will be donated to the Iskashitaa Refugee Network, a grass-roots group that makes and sells marmalades and syrups to help support its work.
Volunteers from the group will help with the harvest and teach others on campus about fruit-preservation methods.
The trio of projects recently received about $19,000 in grants from the UA’s Green Fund.
The money will pay for three student interns and harvest equipment such as nets and buckets.
“One of the elements of this is just making people aware that there is food on the landscape,” said Lenart.
“We’re going to start harvesting and see how far we can go.”