Meet a Farmer: Karen Chandler of Cecchetti Olive Oil
Meet Karen Chandler, Owner of Cecchetti Olive Oil in Lodi, CA. As a first-generation farmer, she took a hands-on approach to learning how to farm.
Learn more about Karen, why her business almost stopped before it got started and why she’s so proud of the product she produces.
CA GROWN: Tell me about the history of the company and what your role is.
Karen: We purchased our home and the land with 100-year-old mission olive trees in 2005, but the home was built back in 1895. This was a pretty big place that we took on and I was thinking of ways to bring in income. Olive oil came to mind, so I Googled it and found this family nearby that’s been in the business since 1935 and I called them to see if they’d be willing to talk to me and I explained my situation. They opened up their hearts to me and showed me everything from the trees to harvesting and I did every single thing they told me to do. I would call this family and give them updates on the trees in the beginning because I was new to the business and wanted to make sure I got it right. The mission olive trees start out with a big, brilliant green color and then turn dark purple on the inside and black on the outside when they’re ready to harvest in the winter. It felt like things happened overnight because soon after, about 90% of the olives were black. My crew was ready to harvest them and I had my truck, trailer and bins ready to go. When I went to hook the hitch up to the truck, it didn’t fit so my workers helped me fix that. Then we realized the tire was flat on the trailer, so we had to lift it up, remove the tires and get them checked and fixed. Then we got them put on and got the truck ready to go because they needed to be at the press by 3 p.m. that day. When I got to the press, the man who unloaded them couldn’t believe how I drove there because all of the lug nuts on the tires had come off. I didn’t think about the weight on the truck before we left, so I’ve always said God carried us to the press. Aside from those issues, it was a great experience to see all of our hard work turn into something so beautiful. When the oil comes out of the pipe and it’s this golden-colored olive oil, it’s such a great feeling. They tested it and let me know it was extra-virgin and because I hadn’t gone to school for this yet, I asked if that was a good thing and they let me know it was very good. I’ve always been a believer that you can learn a lot from people that are older than you because they’ve been in the business and already gone through the steps you’re going to go through. So I took my bottle to Darrell Corti because I wanted his opinion and the only suggestion he had was to add “Estate Grown” to my label. Since I was starting out in the olive oil business, he told me I needed to take the olive oil course at UC Davis and had his assistant enroll me immediately. I didn’t realize that he was the one that taught the course, so a lot of things fell into place for me at the time and I was fortunate enough to go down the right path. Right now, my path includes changing the name of my company to Olive Drop Olive Oil Company, so keep an eye out for some exciting changes!
CA GROWN: What does a typical day look like for you?
Karen: Right now we have 4-H lambs on the property, so we start the day by feeding them. Then I’ll go out and irrigate because we’ve had a little bit of a dry week. Then I’ll walk through to look at the trees and make sure everything looks good. In the evening, I’ll walk through the field again to make sure things are working properly. These particular olive trees are grown in between tokay grapes, which are some of the oldest grapes grown in Lodi. So it’s neat to walk through and eat some of the grapes off the vine.
CA GROWN: What drew you into the farming profession?
Karen: I used to show horses, I was in FFA in high school and I’ve always loved agriculture. I also love living in the country and would rather spend my time outdoors. My dad taught me to not do anything halfway and I’ve always respected him for that. This is a tough business, but I’m very fortunate to be able to make a living doing what I love.
CA GROWN: What are some ways your company gives back to the community?
Karen: The fun part about what I do is giving back to the community. This weekend, I’m doing a dinner for the Stockton Children’s Home and people will bid on items and the funds go to such a great cause. We also have an event I started hosting called Christmas at the Barn and we donate all the proceeds to organizations like Junior League and St. Jude’s. This past year, we had 1,200 people show up on the first Saturday in November. It’s crazy to think this little fundraising event I started to help pay it forward has grown so much and I couldn’t be happier about it. We use local restaurants and wineries to showcase their products and we have local youth come out to sing. There’s no charge to get in, we do raffles and more, so it’s a really fun event.
CA GROWN: What are your hobbies or pastimes when you’re not farming?
Karen: I love horseback riding, but I haven’t done it in awhile. I love going to the ocean and being with my family. I also love snow skiing and taking long Sunday drives.
CA GROWN: How proud are you to know that your olive oil provides nutrition for people across California?
Karen: I’m very proud of it. I can’t wait until my grandkids get their licenses this month so they can start driving and help me distribute more and get our name out there. My granddaughter and grandson help out so much and I could literally leave the business to them for a month and they would do all the farmer’s markets and events. I’m so proud of them for being able to help me with this business and I’m proud to have people that come out and want to see the olive trees and eat healthier. It’s amazing to have people come up to me at the farmer’s markets and tell me about all the different things they’re making with my olive oil. It’s a great feeling for me to know that I’m contributing to their health.
CA GROWN: What is something that’s unique about your business or makes it stand out?
Karen: Our gates are always open. We have people come from all over and they don’t just become customers, they become our friends. I think the friendships I’ve built while I’ve been in this business have been amazing. That kind of open door policy we have is something we’re so proud of. Another thing is the fact that we’re a family-run business, everyone pitches in to help and they’re all a huge part of our success.
CA GROWN: What has contributed to your past success and what are you doing to ensure success going forward?
Karen: My past success is because I hold the integrity of the company very high. We put our heart and soul into this business and it comes down to the fact that I do what I say I’m going to do. I have some customers that I know can’t drive anymore, so I’ll call them and ask if they need any olive oil. If they do, I’ll go fill their bottles up for them. It’s little things like that that make a big difference. Going forward, social media will be a big part in our success and attending more farmer’s markets to get our name out there. My grandkids will also help ensure our success because of their hard work and dedication to growing the business.
CA GROWN: As a California farmer, we know that you have a long list of activities you undertake on your farm to care for the land and its resources. What are one or two ways that you’re most proud of or you feel are innovative ways you care for your land?
Karen: We’re on a drip system, so that’s definitely one way we’re sustainable. We also dry farm and don’t spray any chemicals on the trees at all. We also refill bottles at a little over half the cost of the first bottle. While that’s not sustainable as far as the farming side, it’s very important to us.