Looking to his Roots, Former Engineer Launches Sustainable Olive Oil Business in Corning, California
January 31, 2012 | Nicola Kerslake
When Dewey Lucero was laid off from his engineering job in 2005, he started to think about taking his career in a new direction. Growing up as the grandson of two olive farmers in California’s Central Valley, Lucero was accustomed to helping out with the harvest from a young age, and eventually turned to his roots. “I realized that I could build on my grandfathers’ work by developing an olive oil brand,” said Lucero, who told me about the origin of his sustainable olive oil business at a jam-packed tasting event last weekend. One of Lucero’s grandfathers had sold table olives, while the other sold to the region’s largest olive oil mill and occasionally crushed olives to bottle oil for friends and family.
“When I told them my plan, they said it sounded like a lot of work, but I’d already started picking out labels and bottles,” he said. Bottling his first olive oil in his parent’s garage, he founded Lucero Olive Oil in 2005. The Corning, CA-based company now offers 14 extra virgin olive oil varieties, boasts the most awards of any Californian olive oil producer, sells through retail outlets that include Williams Sonoma and Whole Foods Market, and incorporates sustainable practices into its operations.
Lucero Olive Oil’s orchards span 300 acres, and the company buys additional olives from other local and regional growers to accommodate demand; most of the olives purchased are harvested locally, the most distant orchard being 160 miles’ away in Stockton, CA.
In terms of sustainable practices, Lucero Olive Oil utilizes an extraction process that uses minimal heat in contrast to the high-heat energy-intensive refining process used by many large Mediterranean producers to maximize oil volumes. The water that’s used in Lucero’s extraction process is also recycled.
“It turns out that nutrients from the fruit stay in the waste water, so it’s a great fertilizer for our trees,” Lucero said.
Like most Californian orchard managers, Lucero uses drip irrigation for his trees as opposed to the more inefficient and wasteful flooding technique. While Lucero extracts around 90% of the oil from the fruit, solid waste remains from the process. Lucero has a novel use for this waste; it’s trucked out to an old airfield, dried out on cement, and then sold as animal feed. “There are some pigs out there with very shiny coats!” Lucero speculated. Eventually, Lucero would like to see the solid waste used for biomass given its high calorific value.
California Olive Oil and Sustainability
California’s burgeoning olive oil industry can be partially attributed to sustainability as less accessible and more expensive water has driven farmers to switch out nut orchards for olive oil orchards. For example, almond trees require roughly 18-20 water feet per acre, while olive trees need only 1-3 water feet per acre. As the US presently imports nearly all of its olive oil, California’s production is also helping to nurture local food systems. The state’s production has doubled in the past 3 years according to the California Olive Oil Council, an industry promotional group, and Lucero expects that it will grow another 50% or so this year as newly planted trees are ready for harvest.
Following the lead of the state’s successful wine industry, olive oil producers are determined to create a larger local market for their product by educating consumers on the delights and health benefits of fresh olive oil. “Much of what’s on supermarket shelves is actually rancid or mixed with low grade oil,” noted one sensory scientist. “We need to educate consumers to demand better quality oil in their local grocery store” she added. Some California producers have begun stamping their bottles with production dates to emphasize its freshness; olive oil has only a 6-12 month shelf life and is very sensitive to heat and light. “I cringe when I see a bottle of olive oil sitting out next to a stove top,” commented Lucero.
Like many farmers, Lucero has come to believe that ‘destination farming’ is key to marketing his oil. He argues that his home base of Corning, CA could become “the destination for all things olive oil” based on the 43,000 drivers that pass through the town on the I5 freeway each day and the presence of Bell-Carter, the country’s largest olive producer. Lucero opened a gorgeous new tasting room next to the company’s mill in 2010, and was stunned to receive 2,000 visitors for the company’s first Winter crush event in the fall. The company has expanded its product offering into balsamic vinegars, mustards, table olives and even a chocolate olive oil. Despite the numerous changes, Lucero remains a family business; “I still persuade my grandfathers to help out with the harvest occasionally,” he said.
Nicola Kerslake is a real assets investor, entrepreneur & advocate and maintains the blog, Real Assets Junkie.