Rude awakening

Farming couple sees their olive oil business packed up and carted away when counterculture mentality meets the bottom-line business world

STOP THE PRESS<br>Susie Lawing and Lorenzo Thatcher in the building that once housed their olive oil press. With the equipment repossessed by their creditors, Homegrown Enterprises has been reduced to about two dozen empty 55-gallon drums, some pallet-stacked stock and a bottling machine. The couple, however, vow to get the business up and running again.

Susie Lawing and Lorenzo Thatcher in the building that once housed their olive oil press. With the equipment repossessed by their creditors, Homegrown Enterprises has been reduced to about two dozen empty 55-gallon drums, some pallet-stacked stock and a bottling machine. The couple, however, vow to get the business up and running again.

By Tom Angel

Augusto’s oil:
When it began labeling its bottles as Lorenzo’s Oil, Homegrown Enterprises was contacted by Augusto Odone, the man made famous in the 1991 movie Lorenzo’s Oil. The company was told it could not use the name. However, since then Odone has met with the company’s owners and purchased bottles of the oil.

Susie Lawing and Lorenzo Thatcher had a dream. They were going to help start a revolution in agriculture here in the northern end of the Sacramento Valley. Thousands of gallons of organically produced olive oil would be produced, bottled and shipped from their bucolic farm in west Tehama County.

They would go head to head with the Old World makers of the popular culinary oil. Just as the wineries of Napa and Sonoma counties had taken on their French counterparts in the 1960s and ‘70s to capture the favor of the world’s wine drinkers, Homegrown Enterprises would lead the way for domestic olive oil makers hoping to capture a share of the 40 million gallons imported each year from Mediterranean countries.

Their oil, Lawing and Thatcher say, is healthful in more ways than one; while it is good for the body, its production can also save the small farmer from being gobbled up by the corporate giants. In other words, their product, the say, is the golden elixir for all that ails the body, the soul and the depressed economies of Butte, Tehama and Glenn counties.

On Jan. 10, however, Lawing and Thatcher watched helplessly as their $200,000 olive press and its associated equipment were packed up and placed on a couple of rented flatbed trucks and hauled away to points unknown. The partners had failed to pay back a $20,000 short-term loan and make a $12,000 property payment to an investment firm called Global Partners.

As a result, that self-proclaimed socially responsible investment firm now has $200,000 worth of oil-producing equipment and 112 acres of olive orchards up for sale to the highest bidder.

As those trucks disappeared down Corning-Paskenta Highway leading away from the Homegrown Enterprises ranch, so too, it would seem, did the decade-old dream. How had it come to this?

Lorenzo Thatcher is a lean, sinewy fellow with weathered skin, calloused hands and the gnarled and scarred fingers of a working man. He sports a gray goatee, dark blue eyes and thinning silver locks. He looks to be in his 50s but is in fact 70. He’s been making olive oil in the North Valley since 1965.

Lawing is the ex-wife of local businessman Pat Lawing, founder and owner of Stash Distributing. She has an earthy beauty about her and carries the aura of a hard worker. The couple came together about 10 years ago and bought property near the village of Flournoy, 15 miles west of Corning.

The village was founded in 1906 by a man named Gilbert Snelling, who had sold his general store in nearby Paskenta and built another store and post office about five miles to the east, along the banks of Thomas Creek. Snelling was going to name the town Snellingville, according to a typed history tacked to a bulletin board inside the Flournoy Store. That is until he learned there was already a town named Snellingville. So he named his new town Flournoy, his mother’s maiden name.

In 1995 Lawing and Thatcher decided to get into the olive oil business on a larger scale and went to Italy to looking for equipment to expand the process.

In Italy they found a Pieralisi Major 1 mill, considered, they say, the best in the world. They tried to get financing for the $200,000 piece of machinery from Tehama Bank. Initially, they said, the bank president was enthusiastic and said the bank would support them if they could come up with matching funds.

So they met with Tri Counties Economic Development Corporation and applied for federal Option 9 money, funding designed to help rehabilitate logging communities where lumber mills had closed.

The couple believes that the olive oil industry can become an economic base for the region. Crane Mills lumber mill had shut down five miles down the road from their property putting people out of business. The olive oil industry is the answer, Thatcher and Lawing say.

But the TCEDC turned them down. Unable to secure outside help, Lawing forced an inheritance settlement with her siblings over the death of her parents. In December 1996, using some of that money, she and Thatcher ordered the Pieralisi mill, which was delivered for $210,000. An Italian engineer, who didn’t speak English, was included in the deal to instruct them how to use the machine.

“It is the Cadillac of mills,” Thatcher said of the olive press.

By the following April they had erected a 130-foot-by-30-foot building to house the mill. They produced 1,000 gallons of olive oil that first year, using olives purchased from area farmers. They were encouraged and tried to get more financing, this time through the Mid Valley Bank. Again they were denied.

The next year weather conditions were not favorable and they produced only 200 gallons. That May they were contacted by John Harrington Investments’ “socially responsible” division called “Global Partners.”

The company’s Web site says it “works with its partner company to support the company’s long-term growth and viability and implement its business and social goals.”

The company’s investment criteria call for “conservation, preservation and enhancement of the natural environment” as well as the “encouragement of organic and sustainable farming practices, including fair trade.”

It is easy to understand how Lawing and Thatcher, organic farmers who boast that there is no waste product in their operations, would find Harrington attractive.

They were contacted by Global employee Dawn McGee, whom they had coincidently met while camping a few years before. They were lent $75,000 in working capital, putting up their milling equipment as collateral, and the company made a $100,000 down payment on an olive orchard in Honcut.

Soon after signing on, the couple says, Global brought some potential investors to the Flournoy ranch as an example of the type of investments Global makes.

“They used us to establish integrity,” Lawing said. “They came out and showed off our farm.”

The couple says they assumed Global would understand the nature of agriculture, with its freezes and hail and other natural mishaps. That first year their olive crop froze in the Honcut orchard.

They went through more crop failures. In 1999 they secured a $20,000 loan from Global to be paid back in six months. The loan was to buy olives, and they were able to make 4,500 gallons that year. But due to lack of capital, they could not pay back the loan, and a year later they missed a $12,000 payment for the orchard.

In January Global sued them for the $20,000 loan, which carried 18 percent interest. That spring Global covered the delinquent property payment and took title to the orchard.

“We are hoping they will take this orchard and its equity as our debt paid in full and get out of our lives,” Lawing wrote at the time.

At about the same time, they learned while attending an economic summit at Chico State University that Tehama County had just returned $300,000 of federal investment money because there were no worthy projects located in the area.

Calls to Harrington were referred to attorney Steve Thomas. When we called his office, his legal assistant immediately recognized the case, called it an “interesting story” and said we might want to list the property and machinery that their clients now own and are looking to sell in case there were interested buyers in our readership.

Then she told us that Thomas was out of town but assured us that he would call back and tell whether we could publish the story.

Through it all, Lawing and Thatcher remain amazingly upbeat and optimistic.

“It is the next coming of the gold rush,” Lawing still insists. “It is the future of agriculture. We’re going to survive.”

Even now they are talking with a machine dealer in Ohio, looking to help set them up with new machinery for their oil operation.

“I’m a circular-energy person," expained Thatcher. "If what I’m doing fits with the cycles of life, that will always fulfill me. Now, just because my tools took a hike …"