October 27, 2017

Meet a Farmer: Liz Tagami, General Manager for Lucero Olive Oil

Left to Right, Bob Crane, Liz Tagami, and Brian Crane stand amongst the company's olive trees

This interview first appeared in the CA Grown Newsletter, October 27, 2017

As General Manager for Lucero Olive Oil, Liz Tagami can be found doing everything from overseeing a photo shoot for a catalog, to discussing guest experience with their tasting room manager, to conferring with their national sales team on a conference call and checking in on how the olives are doing in the orchard. It’s a job she loves and is passionate about. Pictured here is Liz (center) with brothers Bob Crane (left) and Brian Crane (right) who’s family co-founded Lucero Olive Oil. The Crane brothers farm olives for Lucero.  

CA GROWN: Tell me about the history of the company.

Liz: In 1947, the Crane family purchased their first olive orchard in Corning and grew table olives through 2002. The family still maintains part of original parcel for table olives. In the post war era, there were 9 processing plants in our little town, and today it is the home of the largest table olive processing plant in the US and the second largest in the world. 

In 2008 the family planted over 200 acres of high density olive trees, which are machine harvested varieties specifically used for oil. In the years following, the family invested in a mill, branding, and opened a tasting room. Finally, in 2012, another 200 acres of specialty hand harvested varieties were planted. As a result of this roll out we offer both scale and diversity in our portfolio today. Lucero is the Crane family’s first consumer direct brand. The past decade has seen an accelerated interest in olive oil because of its health benefits and cooking versatility; interest in olive oil is not a fad, it is here to stay.

CA GROWN:  And what is your role?

Liz:  I was hired by the Crane Family’s Lucero partner in February 2008 as consultant for developing sales and branding for their nascent olive oil business, which I was doing for several other international and domestic olive oil companies at the time. In 2014 they asked me to work for them full time, so now I’m their General Manager. My 35 year career has been centered on making good food and cooking equipment accessible to the American consumer, so this is a dream job for me. Everything that I did leading up to this position has prepared me to produce and offer authentic high quality olive oil.

CA GROWN: What does a typical day look like for you?

Liz: There’s nothing consistent about any particular day. We supply three different sales channels--wholesale customers, our catalog, and our tasting room--and they all need different kinds of support. Last month I was in Seattle shooting a catalog and working on recipe development. I might be with our director in charge of guest experience who works with our tasting room’s on- and off-premise events, I might be on a sales call with our national sales manager or working with our operations group on planning or fulfillment.

On the production end, I try to spend time in the orchards, looking at how the fruit is sizing and coloring, and conferring with our master miller and Mr. Crane on the timing for harvest.  After the oil is made I work with the miller and blender to grade our oil by micro-lot within each variety to optimize the profiles for each harvest year.

CA GROWN: What drew you into olive oil profession?

Liz:  It is something that evolved for me. When you get up in the morning you have to believe in what you do. I was exposed to sourcing quality ingredients early in my career—agriculture came later. External market forces and where I was in my life allowed me to move into this opportunity, and I believe this is where I belong. Today, I don’t source authentic and high quality products–-I support the team of professionals here that makes them!

CA GROWN: What are some ways your company gives back to the community?

Liz:  We have two main programs. We started “A Gallon for You–-A Future for Others” in 2014. For every gallon sold, we set aside $5 to donate to local youth-oriented agricultural programs.

We also support our returning military men and women by donating to the Farmer Veteran Coalition. This group supports veterans reintegrating into civilian life as farmers, which allows them to use the skills and discipline learned in uniform to grow a business and help feed America.

Whenever possible we also support other local farmers by inviting them to sell at our events or by participating in theirs.

CA GROWN: What are your hobbies or pastimes when you’re not farming?

Liz:  Well, strictly speaking I’m not the Farmer, however when I’m not “generally managing” I enjoy writing, reading, and gardening with my husband. I am also a classically trained flute player.

CA GROWN:  What is the most rewarding part of your job?

Liz: I have four groups to whom I answer: customers, employees, our community, and our shareholders. If I can keep everybody happy and productive, that is very rewarding.

CA GROWN: What is unique about your farming operation?

Liz:  The complexity. First of all we’re completely vertical from branch to bottle.  We grow 17 olive varieties in six orchards using three different planting styles and two different harvesting styles; we mill our own fruit, and blend the oils to order; we have our own bottling line and assemble bottles into gift packs.  Secondly, we’re omni-channel by selling in many ways from a robust direct to consumer program, presence in specialty stores, an export business, and other wholesale avenues to a winery-style tasting room with regular tours and tastings, events, and speaking engagements.

CA GROWN:  What would you say has contributed to past success and what are some things being done to ensure continued success?

Liz:  We try to keep the brand focused on product authenticity and quality, and with quality emphasizing deliciousness. Today’s consumer is curious about where their food comes from, and we’re fortunate to be able to speak with her or him face to face or on the phones every day. It’s challenging and humbling, and ultimately the best reward when they tell us they’re pleased.

CA GROWN: We know that you have a long list of activities you undertake on your farm to care for the land and your community. What is just one or two of the most innovative that you are really proud of? 

Liz:   The six orchards I mentioned include two historic blocks of Sevillano trees close to our mill. We estimate the trees to be over 100 years old and some of the first planted in the town. In modern times parcels such as these so close to or in town are mighty attractive to developers, however we’re able to keep them as a legacy. On the other end of the spectrum is the orchard we planted in 2008. It is comprised of five separate blocks and bounded by a creek on one side and an oak savannah habitat between some of those blocks on the other. We have great horned owls, foxes, deer, and many other examples of wildlife living there--a testament to a healthy system. Protecting the environment is important to us. We use Integrated Pest Management (IPM) to control inputs. We use pheromone mating disruption to control olive fly which can affect the taste of the olive oil. We believe that the land and its fruit should be treated with respect, sustaining us as it has for decades.

CA GROWN: What advice would you give to someone who wants to get into farming?

Liz: Be modest and authentic. Don’t take on more than you think you can accomplish. You need to love what you do and it doesn’t have to be on a grand scale.

A link to the original article in CA Grown appears here.

This image is of the CA Grown logo, which is fashioned to look like an official California license plate.