Meet the Producer Who Swapped Her Los Angeles Law Firm for California’s Central Coast
Before becoming a farmer, Kathryn Keeler, co-owner of Rancho Azul and Orohad a fast-paced, stressful job in the Los Angeles legal world and wanted a different, slower life.
Her grandfather’s love for the California hills led her to frequently spend weekends in the nearby Edna Valley with him, and they would explore the Paso Robles area.
One should not embark on olive growing if he is not ready to invest 110% and produce the best olive oil in the world.
Eventually they found property and the land became part of their family life. Over the next 10 years, Keeler divided his time between working in Los Angeles and building the ranch. Finally, in 2015, the ranch became their new life and business.
Rancho Azul y Oro is now a small producer based in the San Miguel Hills on California’s central coast.
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The name means ‘blue and gold ranch,” which Keeler told Olive Oil Times serves as a tribute to his grandfather’s love for the land. Blue and gold are also the official colors of the state of California.
“If asked if we regretted our decision to do this, we would do it again,” she said. “It was an incredible adventure.
While transitioning from city life to farming, Keeler said she encountered many challenges and had to learn a whole new set of skills.
“There are hard lessons, like when equipment in an old mill broke down, and all of our crop stayed and wasn’t ground in time,” she said. “For every reward, there are 100 losses, whether it’s non-delivery of bottles, broken tractors, shift changes for harvesting or weather changes.
“You have to stay flexible and focused to get things done,” added Keeler. “There are times when life on our olive farm is as fast-paced as life in the legal world, like around harvest.
“[Winning at the NYIOOC is] a real honor,” Keeler said. “Because of the high regard with which this competition is held, these awards are a reflection of lessons learned from the past, perseverance in the face of difficult challenges, and improvements we have made.
A typical working day can start at 4:30 a.m. during harvest. However, the trees are pruned and cared for 365 days a year.
During harvest, the olives are hand-picked and sorted, with any that don’t meet Keeler standards being discarded. She is watchful of the weather while transporting the olives from the groves to the mill.
The main objective is to grind the olives within 12 hours and it is not uncommon for the job to be finished by midnight.
“The oil is collected early the next day and we immediately start preparing our samples for testing and certification,” she said. “It’s important to get it right, whether you’re on a farm or in a law firm in Los Angeles.
“One should not go into olive growing if they are not ready to invest 110% of themselves and produce the best olive oil in the world,” Keeler added.
The reward of breathtaking views and sunsets with a glass of wine after a long day makes the adventure worthwhile for Keeler.
She added that the ranch is also the perfect place to celebrate special occasions, especially since the whole family has been involved in its development, from planting the olive trees to helping with the harvests and expanding and the renovation of the ranch.
Like the legal world, she said farming in California is a dynamic profession. Each year, she must adapt to meet the state’s environmental challenges and the ever-changing U.S. olive oil market.
“Our main concern is with the growing conditions, persistent drought, and disease and pest management of the olive tree,” Keeler said. “We installed additional, more streamlined irrigation this year and refined our tree maintenance schedule. Another major challenge this year is supply chain issues, as well as rising costs.
She added that they had placed advance orders for bottles in October 2021 as shortages were anticipated, but these still have not been delivered. Keeler hopes the bottles will arrive in time for the 2022/23 harvest.
Other concerns are whether there will be a labor shortage, even if the family does most of the work.
“All of our supply costs have increased significantly, as well as shipping costs to our customers,” she said. “There is a price beyond which customers are unwilling to pay for premium olive oil, so we are working on ways to reduce our costs, product pricing and shipping. in a way that is fair to us, as well as to our customers.”
Its targeted customer base is exclusively online, especially people living in areas where there is no local olive oil production. She added that Ranco Azul y Oro’s main competition comes from other producers in the region.
“From the outset, due to our remote location, farm visits, tours and events would not be possible,” Keeler said. “We have planned to exclusively develop online sales to this target audience. We sell on multiple platforms and for each of the past two years we have been sold out before the next year’s harvest.
Keeler prides itself on presenting a unique experience and encourages customers to get to know the farmers.
After each harvest, his team reviews the whole process and modifies it accordingly, especially if something has not gone as planned.
“We are looking at olive varietal percentages and developing our blend together, also working on product development for next year,” Keeler said. “We bottle and label our oil together and personally wrap each package, and we get to know our customers.
“Our clients share with us what is happening in their lives, and we remember them and their stories,” she added. “These are not just orders for us; they are people.”
With the 2021 olive harvest now in the rearview mirror, Keeler said the company’s mission is to build on past foundations and continue to improve its product line. “to provide exceptional customer service to our existing customers and grow our customer base.
“Hopefully we will have a successful harvest and return to NYIOOC 2023,” she concluded.