By Len Wilcox
When Jim Shanley retired from his highly successful career in commodity trading, he knew what he wanted to do and where he wanted to do it: farm specialty crops in the hills overlooking Morro Bay, California. His choice of crops, however, was not so clear. He started with avocados, but it was a curious little fruit from Australia — finger lime — that captivated his interest. It fascinated him because the specialty crops he wanted to grow were the ones most people wouldn’t perceive to have exceptional value in the future.
Shanley used wine grapes to explain his search for the right crop. “Wine grapes are in high demand now,” he said. “But wine grapes can be grown anywhere. Wineries are springing up from California to New York. That can’t help but affect future crop values.”
AVOCADOS: INAUGURAL CROP
Crops like lemons, limes, avocados, goji berries and other highly specialized fruits are more limited in ideal growing zones, but are growing in popularity. The locations where these crops can grow will not change, but according to Shanley’s research, demand will continue to increase and lead to higher profitability for growers. That knowledge led him to first plant Hass avocados on part of his ranch, while keeping land available for other specialties.
California’s Central Coast climate grows unique avocados that are supremely rich and creamy with exceptionally high oil content. This is due to the cooler production climate that slows the tree’s metabolism and in turn, slows the fruit’s maturing process. But the fruit is often smaller, about half the size of other avocados. So Shanley markets them as single servings, calling them “gator eggs” and putting them in six-packs for retail sale.
“Avocados have a much more limited growing range than even citrus,” he noted. “At this latitude and elevation, we are near the northernmost reach of avocados. They can’t grow in as many places as grapes or citrus.”
FORAY INTO FINGER LIMES
Once his avocado trees were established, Shanley continued his search for specialty crops that would succeed well into the future. He is also committed to layered agriculture, a farming technique that utilizes all available land by pairing symbiotic crops. He began experimenting with goji berries, Viola figs, passion fruit, dragon fruit and specialty coffee varieties at his Morro Bay ranch. He picked up a 60-acre parcel in the Central Valley when the unusual finger lime caught his eye.
Finger limes are new to the U.S. market. They look like peppers or fresh okra. Some say they look like small pickles. But once a finger lime is cut open, it bursts with lots of perfect little citrus pearls with a surprising lime flavor.
In 2011, Shanley invested heavily in finger lime trees, becoming the first commercial grower of the crop in the United States. He planted finger limes on his Morro Bay ranch and his new parcel near Visalia, California.
The finger lime plant (Citrus australasica) is a thorny shrub or small tree, found in the wild in Australia’s lowland subtropical rainforest and dry rainforest in the coastal border region of Queensland and New South Wales. According to the Swingle system, it is not part of the Citrus genus, but in the related Microcitrus genus. Finger limes seem to thrive wherever citrus grows.
Tests are underway in Australia to use finger lime as a rootstock for citrus, as it is highly resistant to Phytophthora citrophthora root disease. Recent U.S. Department of Agriculture research in Fort Pierce, Florida, revealed HLB resistance in finger limes.
MEETING MARKETING CHALLENGES
The finger lime trees took off in California soil, and Shanley’s plantings were successful. But the fruit did not have many consumers in the United States. Marketing the fruit to a new and untried audience has been challenging. Once the trees were established and beginning to bear fruit, Shanley hired his daughter, Megan Warren, to assist him. With a degree in applied economics and management from Cornell University and experience working for a global berry distributor, Warren brought talent and training to the position of director of sales and marketing.
Their finger lime marketing efforts began with restaurants and bars that cater to food lovers, cocktail artists and culinary adventurers. The strangely shaped limes were well received, and demand grew. The fruits are now in retail establishments such as Whole Foods and some mainstream markets, and recently were added to Blue Apron’s line of home-delivered meals.
With a steadily growing market established for finger limes, Shanley is looking for other crops that might work well in the unique climate of Morro Bay and within his marketing model of future value. He thinks coffee might fill the bill.
Working with Jay Ruskey of Good Land Organics of Santa Barbara, Shanley has established coffee plants on a hillside that seems to fit the crop’s needs. He is a few years away from a viable harvest, but says the few beans he has already harvested and roasted show promise of a new, unique California taste in coffee.
We’ll lift a cup to that.
Len Wilcox is a freelance writer in Sanger, California.
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