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Liquid Gold | Fall 2011 Out Here Magazine

California's Central Valley, with its Mediterranean-like environment, is ideally suited for olive growing.

Dewey Lucero expands his family's tradition of olive farming

By Patty Fuller
Photography by Michael Burke

Rich in taste and healthful qualities, olives and the oil they produce play a rich role in Dewey Lucero's life and heritage as well.

At just 32, Lucero — with three generations of olive growers on his father's side and four generations on his mother's side — exemplifies why California is becoming known as the producer of some of the world's most acclaimed olive oils.

Lucero Olive Oil, based in the rural Northern California town of Corning, has grown from a one-man venture in 2006 to an operation today that includes 16 full-time employees, a production facility turning out 12 olive oil varieties, a new tasting room, a retail store, and nearly 100 international, national, and state awards to its credit.

"I actually hand-drew the first label," the friendly businessman says with a laugh at his whirlwind launch into producing olive oil commercially.

That first year, Lucero — who had graduated from college to be a mechanical engineer — learned all he could about olive oil while between jobs and produced 2,500 gallons of the flavorful deep gold oil.

In short order, he left engineering behind to focus on his new venture. Just five years later, he and his growing crew expect to bottle 50,000 gallons after the autumn harvest this year in Lucero Olive Oil's own processing plant.

'The Perfect Climate'

Olive trees are hardly new to California. Spanish missionaries first planted olive trees at each of the state's 21 missions. By the mid-1800s, the state had a thriving olive industry. And by the 1900s, much of it was based in and around Corning. Lucero's maternal grandfather, Pete Johnston, was instrumental in helping build this huge part of the area's economy: He operated a nursery for 27 years that produced the starts for many of the olive trees in Corning and the surrounding Tehama County.

California's agriculture-rich Central Valley, with Corning toward the northern end, is ideally suited for olive growing. Unlike much of the country, winters here are mild, humidity is low, and 100-degree-plus summer days are common. And olive trees don't require nearly the water that many other crops do. In fact, they thrive under dry, hot conditions, growers report.

"It's the perfect climate for them," Lucero says of olive trees. He further notes that this Mediterranean-like environment is much like that found in Italy's Tuscany region, another part of the world known for its olive oil.

In recent years, more and more table olive growers in the area have expanded to produce high-grade extra virgin olive oil. This change, experts say, is largely because of how health conscious consumers have become, and how extra virgin olive oil is a rich source of antioxidants, thought to help prevent cancer.

Some 99 percent of the extra virgin olive oil produced in the United States comes from California olive groves, says Patty Darragh, executive director of the California Olive Oil Council, which represents nearly 400 members. Virtually all of that oil is extra virgin — the highest quality, purest olive oil available.

About 25,000 acres in California contain olive groves that this year will produce an estimated 1.1 million gallons of top-quality olive oil, she estimates.

Old Traditions, New Business

Before Lucero launched his own oil business, father Bobby Lucero and paternal grandfather Anthony Lucero, both olive growers, made small batches of the full-bodied oil annually for family and friends. The younger Lucero recalls suggesting the family produce the oil commercially but the older generations declined.

Lucero admits that he never intended to follow family tradition and make a living by way of olives. Nor did he yearn after college to return to the small town where he grew up.

Then, just less than a year into his first job as a mechanical engineer, he was laid off. He and wife Katie were living near Sacramento, so he devoted his newfound spare time to his olive oil venture.

"I'm lucky because I knew almost everyone in the area," he says of the Corning area's olive growers. So besides having a tried-and-true family method of making great olive oil, he gleaned advice from assorted olive experts and turned out the first official Lucero Olive Oil.

Lucero now processes and bottles traditional types of extra-virgin olive oil and several infused oils — those blended with such added tastes as basil, garlic, or chocolate. Two are made by crushing Mandarin orange or Meyer lemons together with just-picked olives at processing time. One of the most robust oils Lucero makes and markets, "Anthony's Blend," is named for his paternal grandfather.

The oils are sold in several stores, served at a growing number of restaurants and via the Lucero Olive Oil website ( Lucero also opened a tasting room in Corning late last year and a retail store earlier this year that draw yet more customers.

For all his success in the olive oil business, Dewey Lucero discusses it in appreciative tones. He also notes an ironic twist that made all the difference.

It was because of the current economic recession that he lost his first job in mechanical engineering. But if not for that, Lucero may never have delved into what, for him, became a liquid gold mine.

A longtime writer and editor, Patty Fuller is also a team member at the Sonora, CA, TSC store.