Morro Bay farm grows the unexpected: coffee beans, dragon fruit and limes that look like caviar

Jim Shanley used to grow avocados on his hilly, 113-acre farm in Morro Bay. Now, finger limes, dragon fruit, passion fruit — even coffee plants — are taking root. And, together, they’re far more profitable for the longtime farmer.

“It’s about what can you do where,” he said.

Shanley and his daughter, Megan Shanley Warren, are among the first locally to embrace layered agriculture, which involves growing different crops together in the same space, maximizing resources and land. They’re also brainstorming ways to appeal directly to consumers with their crops.

When their smaller avocados were rejected by produce buyers, for example, the two realized that the green fruit could be marketed as single servings. So they developed Gator Eggs — mini avocados packed in egg carton-like packaging — a play on alligator pears, a nickname for avocados.

The tiny avocados ended up taking off a few years ago as part of a grocery delivery service in New York, and Shanley said they’ve done best on the East Coast. He said they’re currently planning their next Gator Egg push.

“We just have to figure out how to take these little brands with not very big budgets and get the word out,” Warren said.

A new kind of farming

Shanley and Warren — who came to work at her family’s farm after a stint at berry giant Driscoll’s — started out growing traditional avocado trees at Shanley Farms off Highway 41. The family moved to the Central Coast from Visalia in the 1990s, following Shanley’s career as a commodities trader. The family also maintains an organic farm near their old hometown.

The Shanleys’ foray into exotic fruit in Morro Bay started when Shanley discovered finger limes in the early 2000s, just as they were being introduced to American farmers. He was immediately entranced, calling them “the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.”

“I wanted something unique,” he said.

The tiny fruit — most finger limes are 2 to 3 inches in length — isn’t related to limes or lemons. It’s a microcitrus native to Australia with a pearl-like flesh that looks like beads of caviar. The pearls release sweet, citrus-like juice when bitten.

Shanley was among the first farmers in the United States to begin growing finger limes. This year, profits from his 2,100 finger lime trees will overtake those of his 4,000 avocado trees.

Through his interest in finger limes, Shanley met Jay Ruskey, a Goleta farmer and Cal Poly alumnus growing cherimoyas — scaly-looking fruit with a creamy white interior — and other exotic plants, while also experimenting with coffee plants.

Ruskey introduced Shanley to the idea of layered agriculture, which involves growing different crops together in the same space, maximizing resources and land.

“It’s just a pure business model,” Ruskey said of his farming techniques. “Does it work financially for the farmer?”

Eighteen acres of the Shanleys’ farm remains dedicated to avocados, and 12 acres have been layered with four different plants for the past three years. Coffee plants are grown between avocado trees, which provide a wind break and shield the plants from the sun. Less-productive avocado trees are also used to prop up dragon fruit plants.

Purple passion fruit flowers cover a fence surrounding the avocado trees — the ripening fruit growing beneath the blossoms.

“If you stop looking at things conventionally, we not only had a deer fence around this avocado grove, we had a perfect trellis for passion fruit,” Shanley said. “So that’s just another income stream — all you have to do is add water.”

Passion fruit, the only layered crop in full production, has already increased the farm’s income by 10 percent, Shanley said.

California coffee

Shanley’s part of a group of about 24 farmers trying to grow high-quality, artisanal coffee in California, something Ruskey’s had success with.

In 2014, more than a decade after Ruskey started growing coffee, his Good Land Organics crop produced a cup of Caturra coffee that received a 91 out of 100 from Coffee Review, a consumer publication. Ruskey’s farm is the only one currently selling coffee beans.

“I just look at coffee as a fruit,” Ruskey said. “I want to grow the best fruit possible.”

Shanley and Ruskey started Diversitree Nursery in Goleta to cultivate coffee plants, with Shanley as the owner and Ruskey as the consulting grower. Through California Grown Coffee, they sell trees to growers on the Central Coast in Santa Barbara County and in Southern California near San Diego.

Shanley’s farm is the farthest north they’ve tried to grow coffee. He planted his first crop of 14 plants four years ago, “just to see if they’d live through the winter.” Now, Shanley has 3,200 plants growing among 4,000 avocado trees, although he said they likely won’t be at peak production for another three years.

If Shanley Farms’ coffee reaches projected production, it should at least double the farm’s income, Shanley said. He and Ruskey also sell coffee trees produced in their nursery as house plants.

“We’re doing one more iteration 120 miles north of (Ruskey),” Shanley said of his farm. “‘Where’s the boundary?’ is the question this may answer.”

Consumer-centric marketing

The Shanleys are also getting creative with their marketing, appealing directly to high-end consumers willing to pay for unique, better-tasting products.

“Our farm starts between the ears of our customer, and we work back,” he said.

Shanley characterizes branding as a “promise kept and an address.” Along those lines, the Shanleys developed the Morro Bay Avocados brand with the knowledge that their fruit has more time to ripen and develop a higher fat content than those grown in other places, thanks to the area’s cooler climate. This allows them to sell the avocados to Whole Foods and other retailers later in the season, around September.

“The consumer starts to pull it through, instead of us convincing the buyer to put it on the shelf,” Warren said.

The two have spent the past three years coming up with new ways to market finger limes, which American consumers don’t intuitively know how to use. This summer, they’ll roll out individual jars of Citriburst finger lime pearls, which they describe as “citrus caviar.” They’re also developing finger lime recipes to show potential customers how they can incorporate them into their cooking.

Shanley said they’ll likely continue taking chances with their farming — he said they “haven’t had any failures yet.”

“The idea that I’m going to take a risk and it might not work out generally doesn’t disturb my sleep,” Shanley said.

Lindsey Holden: 805-781-7939, @lindseyholden27

Where Shanley Farms’ products are sold

Shanley Farms’ products are available seasonally in San Luis Obispo County at Whole Foods and online at shanleyfarms.com.