U.S. finger lime demand "turning a corner", says Shanley
California grower-marketer Shanley Farms has had to delay its finger lime pearls commercial launch until August due to a later crop, higher demand and lower cull rates for the fresh fruit.
With the season having started in mid-June, owner Jim Shanley tells Fresh Fruit Portal the new product was due to be released this month but a number of forces have 'conspired' to push back the date.
For Shanley Farms this is a good problem to have.
"It does seem like we’re turning the corner in terms of transition from a completely unknown to a somewhat known fruit. We've had some viral videos - last year a group called Eater did an episode about us and that went to 6.2 million views in a little over a week last year.
"We had an Instagram story published by Tastemade for 24 hours and that had 3.2 million views – our online traffic and sales are up over 800% year-over-year."
As if those milestones weren't enough, Shanley's finger limes were also featured in a meal (chicken fajitas) last year from ingredient delivery and home cooking support company Blue Apron.
"Their research named us one of their season’s best, so they’ve been very solicitous of more business this year - they have at least four meal plans for this coming season, so we’re going to get into hundreds of thousands of people’s mouths.
"We feel like the demand is up because we’re turning that corner based on all the data points we’re getting from all these places.
"Last week we actually took [finger limes] to a local fish market and they sold out in one day. They put a display in the fish case and they sold out of all the product that we gave them – we expected that product to last three or four days, maybe a week."
Shanley doesn't want to project that particular data point onto retailers, but mentions if they all sold at that rate the company would already be oversold.
He says Blue Apron's business has grown at such a rapid pace that it's approaching Shanley Farms' capacity, but the group and its third-party partners have also been ramping up production.
Shanley's property in Morro Bay has 5,000 finger lime trees of which 3,000 are in full prodcution, while the group also sources from grower who have a further 5,000 trees in the ground of which 4,000 are in full production.
"We’ve been expanding every year since we started so we have the volume to do these things," Shanley says.
"We just had a meeting with them [Blue Apron] and it turns out their preferred period to use our product coincides not only with our peak production but also a lull in demand.
"Usually at the end of summer and the beginning of back to school we see both a foodservice and retail lull in the demand for our product; that’s when they’re targeting using big blocks of it."
As for the processed finger lime pearls sold in ‘caviar’ jars, the company is working with retailer Whole Foods in both southern and northern California.
"We're also in an open discussion with their national purchasing team," he says.
"We’re also in discussion with other retailers who have expressed interest – specifically there are two in Canada and another one in the mid-Atlantic states."
He explains the season volume looks like a bell curve, starting with low volumes that are mostly sent to European and Asian customers in order to avoid appearing to give preference to particular U.S. customers, and then production picks up and runs for a few months.
"The volume for that is just barely beginning now – we will peak in September and early October in terms of production and then we’ll be winding down production," he says.
"The end of production is usually determined by a cold event, and if there isn’t one we can usually sneak in through to January."
Why do finger limes grow in summer?
Citrus like lemons, lime, oranges, mandarins and grapefruit are well-known as winter fruit, so why do finger limes grow at the completely opposite time of year?
The answer is very simple. They are not part of the genus 'citrus', but rather another genus called 'microcitrus' having developed in isolation in Australia; a kind of marsupial of the citrus world as it were.
"First of all finger limes are an Australian native plant and they are still found growing in the wild in Australia," he says.
"As an Australian native they developed completely outside the realm of other citrus, so I don’t think of it as strange that it’s on its own schedule. It simply grew up and developed as a species in a different place than other citrus."
And not only does the finger lime grow at a different time of year, but it grows in a completely different way.
"The finger lime is very odd in that respect. It starts blooming in our coastal regions in early March, and the tree re-blooms every two to three weeks throughout the season," Shanley says.
"And it sets crop at every set, so we will be visiting each tree every 10 days to two weeks during the picking season to take only the crop that’s mature.
"The tree blooms in waves and we harvest in waves – that’s one of the reasons why the season is so long."
This tendency adds to what is already a labor-intensive farm for Shanley, who also grows the very difficult crop of Goji berries and runs one of the world's northernmost coffee orchards.
"We’re the foolish company that’s moving into things with more labor instead of moving away from it," he says.
"Typically we’re growing crops on cycles that were between pruning, harvesting, fertilizing, weed control - we’re trying to cycle the amount of labor so that we have a labor force that’s more on site than most growers.
"In other words in finger limes we do not bring in outside harvesting crews like you would with an avocado or lemon harvest; because we have to do it so often, we use a relatively small crew but they have things to do on the farm year-long and we’re able to develop them into a better, more well-trained crew for what we need."