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Shanley Farms: Starting a Second Chapter

n an industry full of fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-generation growers, Shanley is something of an anomaly—a company founded less than a decade ago by first-generation growers. As Director of Sales and Marketing and Co-Owner of Shanley Farms, Megan Shanley has seen the business transition from its roots as a retirement project for Jim Shanley, her father, to its current iteration—a women-owned company developing, producing, and marketing a growing assortment of innovative, high-quality fresh products. 

“It started in 2011 when I came to work for my dad. We came up with Shanley Farms then. At that point, he was growing avocados, and he had just planted the finger limes. That was kind of his retirement plan,” Megan says. “It wasn’t intended to be this big business. But then he saw this opportunity to build a legacy for his family. My dad had already done that for another family in his previous career, and he wanted to do it for his own family. At that point, he hired me on to teach me how to build and run a business. And so, that’s what we have been doing for the last five, six years.”

In his previous career, Jim Shanley had served as Chief Operating Officer of a commodity trading and feed manufacturing company—doing business across the western United States and Canada. Eventually, Jim retired and acquired several properties along the Central California coast. 

In 1998, Jim purchased Morro Canyon Ranch in Morro Bay, California—planting avocados a year later. He caught the farming bug, and from there, Jim purchased Venice Hill Ranch—a property actively producing avocados, oranges, lemons, and kiwifruit—in Visalia, California, in 2003.

Even with these pieces in place, it would still be several years before Shanley Farms took shape. As Jim was putting together the assets, Megan was cultivating a passion for produce marketing, and after she studied Agriculture Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Cornell University, the father-daughter pair devised a plan to launch their company. 

“We looked at the farming operation as it was, and together, we found a way to bring me on board to begin marketing our existing production,” Megan tells me. For Megan and her father, Shanley Farms was more than a business venture. It was a chance to give to posterity. “He saw an opportunity to teach me to run a business. My dad is a very intelligent guy. He specializes in building businesses, and he wanted to share that lesson with me. In the process, we realized that this could be a viable company—making real money—and we would have something to pass on to future generations. That inspires my dad more than anything—building something to pass down to his grandchildren and their children.”

With Jim on board, providing know-how as President and Chairman, Megan and her sister Rachelle Shanley Witt—the company’s Corporate Secretary—took the reins. The two sisters recently incorporated Shanley Farms in their names, leasing their father’s assets as they transition management to the younger generation of Shanleys.

Never one to rest on her laurels, Megan and the rest of the company are hard at work on a series of new programs designed to diversify Shanley Farms’ offerings and add unique flavors to produce aisles across the state and throughout the country.

From the company’s Morro Bay Avocados and its increasingly-iconic Gator Eggs™—single-serve avocados available in a high-graphic, egg carton-style container—to more unconventional offerings like California-grown goji berries and Citriburst finger limes and finger lime pearls, the company’s offerings are designed, it seems, to leave an indelible impression on the fresh food landscape and provide customers with the best possible eating experience.

“Retailers and consumers are looking for unique and especially delicious items. We have found that the market is not overburdened by people introducing new items,” says Megan. “The biggest challenge with marketing specialty produce is educating the public and the retailer. The gap between taking an unknown to a known is huge. And we work closely with our partners to promote the newest, best-tasting things when we bring them to market.”

In addition to the company’s full-fledged avocado orchards and a growing goji berry crop that made its debut this year, Shanley Farms expects to market commercial quantities of specialty coffee, produced in partnership with several growers throughout California, by 2020.

Yes, the company has even begun growing that most-stimulating of drupes—coffee—in Goleta, California, just north of the University of California, Santa Barbara in Santa Barbara County. 

“We’ve brought in and are propagating several specialty varieties, and are planting throughout California,” Megan shares.

So how does a California company transition from avocados to coffee?

“It was seamless. We actually have coffee trees planted in between our avocado trees,” Megan explains. “They need a lot of the same things that avocados need, and they like the shade that avocado trees can offer. The two plants can even be irrigated together to reduce waste water.”

This felicitous pairing became the inspiration for an entire growing program, and the company is now providing coffee trees and education to growing partners as the company moves to develop its commercial coffee production. Megan notes that the team teaches their farmers how to grow Shanley’s coffee, adding: “That’s part of our program, and we’re working to establish the next step in terms of buying the cherries back from the growers and marketing them as another Shanley Farms product.”

 As if California-grown coffee wasn’t a rarified enough experience, the company has two truly decadent offerings in the works: an exceptionally sweet raspberry jam-like Viola fig, set to make its debut in 2018, and truffles, courtesy of the company’s burgeoning black truffle orchard.

“Our first orchard is only two years old,” says Megan. “Through many visits to truffle nurseries and truffle farms, learning from experienced growers in France, we have been told that you can generally plan for five to eight years before you see your first truffle.”

In the short term, though, customers can satiate their cravings for new specialty offerings this spring with the company’s Citriburst finger lime pearls—jarred pearls, or “caviar,” from the insides of the Australian fruit.

“We’re very excited for this product to launch this spring. We’ve been on this finger lime kick for six years now. In the beginning we had produce veterans telling us ‘these are going to take off in three years,’ and then three years went by…but now, in our sixth year we’re finally starting to see it.” Megan says.

Megan tells me that the company expects finger lime pearls to be a boon to the category. In the same way that packaged pomegranate arils gave consumers an entrée into using what had beforehand been an intimidating and unfamiliar fruit, Shanley Farms expects the pearls to pave the way for finger limes to finally hit the mainstream.

And as increased demand for healthy, all-natural food changes the landscape of processed foods and foodservice, Megan notes that the company is excited by the prospects of finger limes as a natural flavor to be admixed into a variety of confections.

The future looks bright for Shanley Farms. As consumers look for more and more varied fresh food offerings, Megan and company promise to continually innovate and add to their ever-evolving portfolio of products.