Cathie Anderson

You have to know somebody to buy this award-winning olive oil

Felipe Ternero, left, oversees the work while just-picked manzanilla olives are poured into a large bin at his Ternero Farms in Corning in 2012.
Felipe Ternero, left, oversees the work while just-picked manzanilla olives are poured into a large bin at his Ternero Farms in Corning in 2012. rpench@sacbee.com

Ternero Olive Oil recently won best of division at the California State Fair for its robust extra-virgin picual, but you won’t find this oil for sale on any grocer’s shelves or even on the company’s website.

Felipe and Lisa Ternero of Granite Bay market their olive oil only through fundraisers: Teachers have paid for classroom supplies by selling it. Boys playing on travel baseball teams have financed trips to Cooperstown Dreams Park in New York. Soroptimist clubs have used it to further their mission of improving the lives of girls and women locally and worldwide.

“I like the idea of saying, ‘The only way you can get it is through me or the fundraisers,” said Lisa Ternero, who left her job selling radio advertising a few years ago to focus full-time on developing this business concept.

Until then, Felipe Ternero had focused on selling the fruit from his orchard in bulk to either table olive companies or olive oil producers. That is still how Ternero Olive Oil makes most of its money, but Lisa Ternero’s fundraising operation has seen rapid growth.

The Terneros sold 300 cases in 2013, the year Lisa introduced the idea. The next year, that figure doubled. This year, the Terneros sold a little more than 1,000 cases. Each case holds 12 bottles.

The business idea came to Lisa Ternero when she was approached by an athletic teen neighbor selling cookie dough for a high-school track fundraiser. That product, Ternero said, wasn’t what she or her family should be eating if they wanted to be as fit as the young woman selling it.

She gave a donation, declined the dough and got to thinking: What if Ternero Olive Oil bottled its olio nuovo, or new oil, and sold it to fundraising groups? This liquid gold has been proven to be packed with cancer-fighting polyphenols and heart-loving monounsaturated fats.

The idea would be a success in her view, she thought, if the fundraisers could realize a meaningful profit and consumers felt the price was so reasonable that they didn’t have to ration the oil. The health benefits of olive oil decline the longer it sits around.

“You could sell my oil right after it’s been harvested at a boutique store for $28 to $32, but my husband … doesn’t want to price people out,” Lisa Ternero said. “If I sell it for a lot of money, people aren’t going to use it.”

So far, market forces have allowed her to sell the oil to fundraising groups for $7.50 per bottle. They, in turn, offer it for $15. One of Lisa Ternero’s oldest friends, second-grade teacher Karen Thornton, was among the first people to give Ternero’s idea a try. Thornton wanted to raise enough money to fund supplies for her classroom.

“Lisa and Felipe made these darling labels for the bottles,” said Thornton, who teaches at Arlene Hein Elementary School in Elk Grove. “It said ‘heart healthy,’ so we had hearts on them, along with the names of the kids. They sold about $1,400 worth of olive oil, and so after I paid Ternero Olive Oil, I had about $700 for my classroom.”

Up in the Sierra foothills, Loomis resident Nivia Claussen suggested that her son’s travel baseball team, the Golden Spikes Tigers, sell the oil to raise money for their trip to the Cooperstown Dreams Park.

“If you do a car wash, maybe you’re going to make $300 or $400,” Claussen said. “If you do a bake sale, maybe you’ll make that much. But we sold something that’s healthy and made $3,000.”

A former high school teacher, Claussen added: “I’m embarrassed to admit this, but one of the fundraisers I did was selling Dunkin’ Donuts … to kids in school.”

The Terneros, who have lived in Granite Bay for about eight years, recently planted 1,200 olive trees in Lincoln, where they hope to one day provide education for fundraising groups. Their main orchard in Corning has roughly 25,000 trees – manzanilla, mission, picual and more recently the buttery hojiblanca varieties of olives.

The manzanilla and hojiblanca olives are a nod to Felipe Ternero’s Spanish roots. His family has farmed olives for three generations on 1,000 acres near Seville. Ternero’s father actually got the orchard in Corning started in 1990 with some business partners, but he wasn’t able to oversee it closely.

He learned of tax and credit problems and asked his son to take the reins. To right the operation, Lisa Ternero said, her husband worked without pay for five or six years. In that time, the IRS agent on their case got to know Felipe Ternero so well that she sent a congratulatory card when the couple had twins, Bella and Nico Ternero. Creditors would pop up, the couple said, with notes for loans that they had no record of being made.

By 2005, Felipe Ternero had turned the operation around and had managed to put enough money away to acquire the 350-acre property from his father. The couple sold about 100 acres a few years ago to diversify their real estate holdings. They still do much of the planting and pruning themselves, and they handle most repairs in their drip irrigation system.

They try to keep a tight rein on costs, they said, but there are always challenges: Nighttime prowlers have broken in and made off with either farm equipment or their olives. This year, their table olives will be ready to harvest in August, three weeks ahead of schedule, but the contract laborers they usually hire may still be working to bring in other crops.

“I hope I can continue charging $7.50 a bottle,” Lisa Ternero said. “When you buy an olive oil from me one day and it’s $30, you’ll know something happened.”

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