WOMEN WHO LAUNCH

Women Who Launch: Poggiagliolmi

Elizabeth Poggiagliolmi, 50
Owner & Founder, Poggiagliomi

It seems there is no place Elizabeth won’t go. As a native Sabahan from Malaysia, Elizabeth studied in Singapore and London; and worked in Germany. While in the UK, she met and married her Italian husband whom she describes as “an unrooted and fellow earth traveller”. It was not long before she started a family. According to Elizabeth ‘the ingredients list on the label of a ketchup bottle suddenly became important’.

In 1999, the Poggiagliolmi family packed their bags, bought a farmhouse in an Italian countryside and began putting down roots living as idyllic organic farmers. Today, they earn a living off their land by producing premium organic olive oil.

This is my e-interview with Liz, the 50 year old idyllic organic farmer, who once held an desk-bound office job as a computer graphics designer.

What is the story behind Poggiagliolmi?
We moved to Tuscany from London when our daughter turned two years old. Much as we loved London, we felt city life was not a conducive environment to bring up a child. During our travels, we fell in love with Magliano in Toscana, a lovely medieval town between Florence and Rome. We ended up buying a farmhouse which came with 200 olive trees. I would say that was the beginning steps of our ten year journey producing olive oil as a business.

What is behind the name – Poggialiolmi?
Poggiagliolmi is my husband’s family name. It is made up for three words, Poggio Agli Olmi – literally meaning “the hills where the elms are”.

Is this your first business venture?
Yes. It is hard work!

As a family-run business, how do you balance out the roles and responsibilities?
I take care of the “downstream” – that is from sales, marketing, promotion and dealing with all the bureaucracy. My husband takes care of the “upstream” – that is farming, overseeing when to prune the trees and harvesting. But having said that, our roles often overlap.

What is the difference between organic olive oil and regular olive oil?
Organic olive oil production do not use fertilisers and pesticides. Olive trees have been around for centuries. But with time, we are driven to get more and more out of what Nature gives us. This leads to the use of fertilisers and pesticides for commercial purposes to increase production.

Another thing that commercialised large olive growers do is plant trees in close proximity in the hope to grow more trees within a grove. The problem with this is that olive trees like to have space between them. Planting trees too close together lessens the nutrients. This leads to the use of fertilisers to be added; and the close proximity encourages the growth of pests, which results in the use of pesticides.

How is your olive oil different?
Our farm is totally organic – by nature and by choice. Our trees are planted far apart giving plenty of root space to grow and absorb nutrients. We don’t over-plant and we don’t use fertilisers because we respect the natural lifecycle of the olive trees. The only real pest we face is the “olive fly” which infects the olives when they swell after the rains come in November/December. Most olive farmers spray pesticides to “coat” the olives. We prefer not to do this. Rather, we harvest earlier. We get less oil, but it is of a higher quality. That is also why our oil is so green. The green color is due to the high chlorophyll content, and remains green and aromatic even after two years. It is also high in anti-oxidants.

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What is olive harvest season like?
Every year in September, we watch the skies. We worry if it gets cloudy. We want rain but not too heavy. Light rain helps to freshen the air surrounding the olive groves after the long hot summer weather from June to August. Then, comes the decision to make – choosing the right day. Once we have decided and agreed on the day of harvest, phone calls are made. Crates have to be delivered and pickers have to be notified.

On the day of harvest, the day starts with frenetic activity. From sunrise to sunset, it is non-stop picking. The crates are filled with the day’s picking and delivered immediately to the olive press to be weighted, tagged and pressed immediately. Then the next day, and the next. This goes on for a week. Then, it is all over. On the field.

Is Singapore your first international market after Italy?
Yes. Singapore is our first attempt to introduce Poggiagliomi to the world. We used to give our family and friends our oil as presents, and sold our olives to local press. One time, we had some friends for dinner and they brought along some friends of theirs. To cut a long story short, one of the guests happened to be the famed chef Sandro Falbo (Executive Chef of The Fullerton Hotel Singapore). He loved our oil and couldn’t get enough of it. He said to me “Get your oil to Singapore!’

Was it easy getting your oil on Singapore’s market shelves?
It was scary. Disappointments came by the bucketful. I flew to Singapore and visited many shops. The important thing is to not be discouraged. Sometimes, all you need is just that one person to believe in you to help launch your business. Supernature in Singapore took me in on trust and I am always grateful for that first step. We are now entering the rest of Asia.

How do you see Poggiagliolmi faring in the competitive organics market?
With difficulty. Albeit the growing awareness of health and the need to eat healthy, cost is still an obstacle. Many people think we make a lot of money from selling organic. It is the large producers who are making the huge profits. I believe the answer to this question lies with the consumer. Whoever tastes our oil will know it is good oil.

What is the biggest challenge you face?
Bridging the shipping costs. This is the most frustrating for me. I know we have a good product and I know customers want to buy. But rising shipping costs is one of the main drivers of having a higher price point.

Give us an olive fun fact.
Did you know it takes olives from one olive tree to make 2litres of olive oil?

What advice would you give to young women entrepreneurs?
You have to have passion. Without passion, you might as well stay in bed or put all your savings in the bank and gain interest. When you believe in a product, you have to keep going. Someone once said to me “There is no ‘No’ in this business”. I just have to keep trying until I get a yes!

Who do you admire?
Anita Roddick. She said “A great advantage I had when I started The Body Shop was that I had never been to business school”.

What does that quote mean to you?
I often asked myself what she meant by that quote. I understand it now. In business, I am learning everyday. If I had gone to business school and been made aware of all the possible pitfalls, all the risks – I would not have even started.

Poggiagliolmi’s label is very unique. How did you come up with the design?
When we moved to Tuscany, our daughter was two years old. It is her drawing of our new life on farm at the time that we now use on our labels.

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Thanks Liz ♥ Poggiaggliolmi olive oils are now available in Singapore at Supernature.

To contact or find out more about Poggiagliolmi, you can visit their Facebook fan page. 


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