A farm-to-table family success story in Morro Bay

Judy Salamacha
Judy Salamacha

During Women’s History Month, we salute women who have paved the way. For example, in today’s “foodie” and farm-to-table revolution, Megan Shanley Warren and Rachelle Shanley Witt are pioneering the production and marketing of Central Coast exotic foods — passion fruit, dragon fruit, coffee and finger limes — that are normally only grown in recognized tropical regions. 

Shanley Farms is an artisan grower. The sisters operate the company that manages the farms. They lease Morro Canyon Ranch from their father, ranch owner Jim Shanley. 

As their growing list of specialty products matures, Shanley Farms is creating distinctive ways to market their avocados and finger limes. Morro Bay avocados are packaged in six-pack cartons and called Gator Eggs. The company’s Citriburst finger limes taste similar to a lemon/lime/grapefruit combination and go especially well on fish and desserts. Coffee trees are sold as decorative indoor plants (www.cacoffeegrowers.com). The company’s Visalia-grown late harvest Sierra Sweet Kiwis promise peak sweetness.

Instead of buying a beachfront retirement home for his daughters, Jim Shanley purchased an avocado ranch near Morro Bay, which is now the headquarters for the family business. 

As his passion for farming grew, he changed careers, leaving commodity trading and animal feed manufacturing. Once he discovered that finger limes, an Australian delicacy, would thrive in Morro Bay’s terroir, he recruited his talented daughters.     Warren, a Cornell agri-business graduate, was pilfered away from Driscoll’s, a national supplier of fresh berries. With an accounting background, Witt was enlisted to handle the farm’s financial matters. Warren added graphic designer John O’Brien to the marketing team. 

According to Warren, Shanley Farms pitches its packaged products at Fancy Food shows in New York and San Francisco. 

“You take a five-hour road trip with Dad and he has a new business sideline created,” she said. Their distribution outlets are specialty markets such as Whole Foods Market and Giovanni’s Fish Market in Morro Bay. 

Current demand requires more growing partners. “We’re looking for growers to build a slightly different model to maximize their growing acreage,” Shanley said. The company sources products from about 50 growers. They would like 100.

Shanley hopes to introduce the practice of “layered agriculture” to more growers. For example, Shanley grows passion fruit on deer fencing and uses lesser-producing avocado trees as scaffolding to grow dragon fruit. The coffee plantation grows alongside Shanley Farms’ avocado trees, maximizing land use while conserving on irrigation, fertilizing and mowing operations. 

“Nobody expected us to grow coffee here, but we have the climate to keep the cherry beans on the trees longer until the flavor is at maximum.” 

Learn more at www.shanleyfarms.com, or meet them during the Earth Day Food and Wine event on April 18 at Castoro Cellars in Templeton.