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Olive and Well: College Revives Beloved Agrarian Tradition

By Rachel Morrison

They are strong and have a lot of character, and though they aren’t generally temperamental, they have been known to snap when pushed too hard.

These are the olive trees of Scripps College, whose small grove west of the Humanities building was the center of attention on November 1, 2019, when its olives were harvested for the first time since 2016. Planted in the 1930s, this Mediterranean variety had previously been the wellspring of the College’s annual olive harvest and award-winning olive oil, but following years of drought and water restrictions, as well as the departure of longtime Director of Campus Grounds Lola Trafecanty, the tradition had fallen away. Until now.

“These are special trees. The groundkeepers do an exceptional job maintaining their health and beauty” says Joya Salas, landscape operations manager and architect of the reinstituted harvest. “Given the abundance of rain we had last winter, the olives are plentiful.”

Over 100 students, faculty, staff, and members of the community, including two Girl Scout troops, turned out to the event, harvesting over 1,500 pounds of fruit. Student groups included the Scripps Associated Students (SAS), the Food Recovery Network, and representatives from the Laspa Center for Leadership. According to Maggie Thompson ’20, who serves as the SAS sustainability chair and participates in the Scripps Environmental Education and Development (SEED) club, the olive harvest was both a nod to Scripps’ past and a beacon to the future.

“I remember hearing about the olive harvest as a prospective student from Scripps alumnae. I learned about the class of ’68 that protested to protect the olive trees—the harvest resurrects that history,” Thompson says. “I hope this tradition stays around as long as Scripps does. Having a connection with the resources that make this place beautiful, while still creating some great olive oil, is just fun.”

The recent harvesting of Scripps’ olives began in 2012, the result of an initiative put forth by students in Professor Nancy Neiman’s Core II class, The Politics and Culture of Food. Looking to provide sustainable solutions on campus, the students proposed harvesting fallen fruit, implementing a composting program, and harvesting the College’s olives, which would enable the grounds crew to “avoid the current practice of spraying the trees so that they don’t fruit and create a mess,” according to their 2008 proposal.

“I’ve seen sustainability grow at Scripps over the years—we’ve put in sustainable landscaping where there was lawn and replaced sprinklers with a drip system,” says Neiman. “We still have a way to go, but we are headed in the right direction.”

When Salas arrived on campus August 2018, she was immediately approached about when the olive harvest would return. “When people started asking about the harvest, I set out to assess the desire of multiple campus constituents, and everyone—everyone—from students to the president’s office, alumnae and the community, everyone wanted the harvest back,” she says.

Salas has a background in art, education, and horticulture. She earned a BA from Occidental College in studio art and art history and began her career at Descanso Gardens as an educator in the Harvest garden, where she taught urban agriculture and therapeutic gardening to many, including at–risk high schoolers. While at Descanso, she gained critical horticultural skills, eventually volunteering her time at the Theodore Payne Foundation in Sunland, California, and earning a Master Gardening Certificate. “I still paint, but my medium has shifted from pastels and oil paints to plant material,” she says.

And while Salas’ artistic palate usually tends towards shades of green, lately she’s had her sights set on gold. In 2013, Scripps’ olive oil won silver in the “domestic, delicate” category at the Los Angeles International Extra Virgin Olive Oil competition, beating out 207 other American competitors. As Neiman told NBC Los Angeles after the win, “we knew this was going to be an amazing thing to do for the community one way or another”—proceeds from the oil went to community and campus outreach programs—“[but] no one figured we would make award–winning olive oil.”

Salas isn’t as surprised. “The way our groundkeepers steward these trees with their impeccable eye for detail and expert maintenance, I have complete faith in our end product. I am happy to announce two new partners this year: Dos Pizotes, a family–run olive ranch in San Diego County, who will process and bottle the oil, and local La Huerta farms, who is providing our blending olives. We have all the ingredients for success and high potential for recognition if we choose to enter the competition again,” she says.

But Salas has another goal in mind, too. “My hope is to enhance this tradition and become a model program that other colleges look to in terms of sustainability and incorporating an edible campus into a community–building event,” she says. “We have an incredibly rich campus in terms of edible landscape. There is great potential for a variety of farm-to-table table endeavors. Imagine how delicious marmalade from our Sevelle orange trees would taste!”

Looking back at harvest day, Salas says that it was a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take part in a tradition among a grove that has been present here for nearly a century. To see the whole process, from harvest to bottling, and to witness the people-power it takes to produce a delicate, small-batch product gives a new meaning to ‘farm-to-table’ and provides a tangible connection to our food system.”

“Plus,” adds Salas, “Our olives are highly intelligent; they’ve spent decades in the humanities building around Scripps faculty, students, and staff.”

You may preorder a 200ml bottle of Scripps olive oil for $40 (prices rise to is $45 in December) by emailing jsalas@scrippscollege.edu. All proceeds benefit Scripps’ sustainability initiatives.  

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