Meet the Producer Who Swapped Her L.A. Law Office for California’s Central Coast

Kathryn Keeeler brings the same vigor and due diligence from the legal world to the olive oil one, with award-winning results.
Kathryn Keeler (left) and her husband, Stuart de Haaff.
May. 18, 2022
Jasmina Nevada

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Before becom­ing a farmer, Kathryn Keeler, the co-owner of Rancho Azul y Oro, had a high-paced, stress­ful job in the Los Angeles legal world, and wished for a dif­fer­ent, slower-paced life.

Her grand­fa­ther’s love of 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 go into olive farm­ing if they are not pre­pared to put in 110 per­cent of them­selves and plan to pro­duce the best olive oil in the world.- Kathryn Keeler, co-owner, Rancho Azul y Oro

Eventually, they found a prop­erty and the land became an inte­gral part of their fam­ily life. Over the next 10 years, Keeler split her 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 bou­tique pro­ducer based in the hills of San Miguel on the Central Coast of California.

See Also:Producer Profiles

The name means blue and gold ranch,’ which Keeler told Olive Oil Times serves as a homage to her grand­fa­ther’s love of the land. Blue and gold are also California’s offi­cial state col­ors.

If we were asked if we regret­ted our deci­sion to do this, we would do it all over again,” she said. It’s been an amaz­ing adven­ture.”

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While tran­si­tion­ing from city life to farm­ing, Keeler said she came across plenty of chal­lenges and had to learn a whole new set of skills.

There are hard lessons, such as when a pre­vi­ous mil­l’s equip­ment broke, and our entire crop sat and did not get milled in time,” she said. For every award, there are 100 losses, whether it’s non-deliv­ery of bot­tles, trac­tors break­ing, crew changes for har­vest or weather changes.”

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Sorting olives at Azul Rancho y Oro.

One has to remain flex­i­ble and focused to get things done,” Keeler added. There are times when life on our olive farm is as fast-paced as life in the legal world, such as around har­vest.”

Rancho Azul y Oro earned a Gold Award at the 2022 NYIOOC World Olive Oil Competition for a robust blend of Frantoio, Coratina, Mission, Manzanilla, Pendolino and Arbequina olives.

“[Winning at the NYIOOC is] a true honor,” Keeler said. Due to the high regard with which this com­pe­ti­tion is held, these awards are a reflec­tion of past lessons learned, per­se­ver­ance through dif­fi­cult chal­lenges and improve­ments we have made.”

A typ­i­cal work­day can start at 4:30 am dur­ing the har­vest. However, the trees are pruned and cared for 365 days per year.

During the har­vest, the olives are hand-picked and sorted, with any that do not meet Keeler’s stan­dards dis­carded. She is vig­i­lant of the weather while trans­port­ing the olives from the groves to the mill.

The pri­mary aim is to mill the olives within 12 hours and it is not unusual for work to fin­ish by mid­night.

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Taking olives to the mill. Photo: Rancho Azul y Oro

The oil is picked up early the next day and we imme­di­ately begin prepar­ing our sam­ples for test­ing and cer­ti­fi­ca­tion,” she said. Doing it right mat­ters, whether you’re on a farm or in a law office in Los Angeles.”

One should not go into olive farm­ing if they are not pre­pared to put in 110 per­cent of them­selves and plan to pro­duce the best olive oil in the world,” Keeler added.

The reward of the breath-tak­ing vis­tas and sun­sets with a glass of wine after a long day makes the ven­ture worth­while for Keeler.

She added that the ranch is also the ideal place to cel­e­brate spe­cial occa­sions, espe­cially since the whole fam­ily has been involved in its evo­lu­tion, from plant­ing the olive trees to par­tic­i­pat­ing in the har­vests and expand­ing and ren­o­vat­ing the ranch.

Like the legal world, she said farm­ing in California is a dynamic pro­fes­sion. Each year, she has to adapt to meet the state’s envi­ron­men­tal chal­lenges and the ever-chang­ing U.S. olive oil mar­ket.

Our fore­most con­cern is grow­ing con­di­tions, the con­tin­ued drought and man­ag­ing olive tree dis­eases and pests,” Keeler said. We installed addi­tional, more stream­lined irri­ga­tion this year and have honed our sched­ule for tree main­te­nance. Another major chal­lenge this year is sup­ply chain issues, as well as ris­ing costs.”

She added they 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 short­age of labor, even though the fam­ily does most of the work.

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Rancho Azul y Oro

All of our sup­ply costs have risen dra­mat­i­cally, also ship­ping costs to our cus­tomers,” she said. There is a price point beyond which cus­tomers are not will­ing to pay for pre­mium olive oil, so we are work­ing on ways to reduce our costs, the price of our prod­ucts and ship­ping in a way that is fair to us, as well as to our cus­tomers.”

Her tar­geted cus­tomer base is exclu­sively online, specif­i­cally 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 area.

From the begin­ning, due to our remote loca­tion, farm vis­its, tours and events would not be pos­si­ble,” Keeler said. We have planned to develop exclu­sively online sales to this tar­geted audi­ence. We sell on sev­eral plat­forms and for each of the last two years, have been sold out before the next year’s har­vest.”

Keeler prides her­self on pre­sent­ing a unique expe­ri­ence and encour­ages cus­tomers to get to know the farm­ers.

After every har­vest, her team reviews the whole process and mod­i­fies it accord­ingly, espe­cially if some­thing did not go to plan.

We review what the per­cent­ages of olive vari­etals were and develop our blend together, work­ing also on prod­uct devel­op­ment for the next year,” Keeler said. We bot­tle and label our oil together and per­son­ally gift wrap each pack­age, and we get to know our cus­tomers.”

Our cus­tomers share what’s going on in their lives with us, and we remem­ber them and their sto­ries,” she added. They are not just orders to 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 improv­ing its range of prod­ucts to pro­vide excep­tional cus­tomer ser­vice to our exist­ing cus­tomers and increase our cus­tomer base.”

Hopefully, we will have a suc­cess­ful har­vest and return to the 2023 NYIOOC,” she con­cluded.


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