In honor of cherry season and Murray Family Farms’ second-year win of Santa Monica’s Most Loved Farmer Award, HAND + SEED decided to dig into the archives and highlight this story of cherries establishing roots in an unlikely place.
Several days ago, someone asked me what got me interested in rare and exotic fruits. I could spend days talking about all the twists and turns – changing universities and majors, six life-altering months in Mexico, learning a half-dozen languages, and traveling the world – that took me down that path.
I will start, though, at the beginning, at a moment that changed my family’s life. It concerns a humble piece of fruit that brings back memories of summertime, and one that you probably see at the market — the cherry.
In 1989, when I was four years old, my father traded his house in Bakersfield for a dilapidated farmhouse and 20 acres of farmland in Central California’s Kern County. My father had farming roots in the state, and he’d always wanted to make a go of it for himself.
As a kid, I was excited to get the cool experience of growing up on a farm.
Shortly after we moved into the renovated farmhouse, farmers Bruce Frost and Marty Vitale knocked on the front door. They were interested in starting a cherry nursery to grow newly released low-chill cherry varieties – Brooks and Tulare.
These two varieties were able to grow with much less chilling and still produce a crop. My father, who had originally planned to use the land for orange groves, was surprised and excited by this venture. They paid my father’s first rent check in cherry trees.
At the time, people believed it was impossible to grow cherries in Kern County, which grows all kinds of fruits and vegetables for the nation and the globe. The area was considered too warm, and people assumed that the region didn’t get enough chill hours for the cherries to produce. The Brooks cherry and Tulare cherry changed this.
After three years of growing, my father’s small orchard produced its first crop of cherries. It turned out that these first few boxes of fruit were produced three weeks ahead of any of the cherries in California’s Delta region, spanning Central and Northern California.
That was the start of the cherry industry in Kern County.
As word spread of this early cherry land and new varieties, many of the big cherry-packing houses were interested in getting in on the emerging cherry game.
Recognizing the opportunity before him, my father bought large chunks of land that had previously been planted with jojoba. (In the 1970s and 80s, whaling was banned across the world and people turned to jojoba oil as a potential substitute to whale oil. International investors bought large tracts of land to grow the new crop, but knew nothing of jojoba and went bankrupt.)
For every 120 acres my dad bought, he got 40 acres for free. He divided the land into parcels and sold them off to packing houses. With no investment, my family went from 20 acres to 320 acres.
Today, cherry season in the Northern Hemisphere starts with us – Murray Family Farms is the first to harvest, and we have 200 acres of our farm devoted to dozens of cherry varieties.
We sell our fruit to two packing houses – Prima Frutta and Warmerdam Packing – that ship the fruit across the world.
We also sell fruit in-house at our two fruit stands and at farmer’s markets across Central and Southern California, sometimes traveling hundreds of miles to get there.
My family first entered into farm-direct marketing by selling cherries at the Santa Barbara Farmer’s Market. One of my distinct childhood memories is walking with bags of the red and ripe cherries, offering to trade other vendors for their produce.
I find it cool that, 23 years later, I sell fruit at farmer’s markets as a career.
I spend my Wednesdays at the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market, sharing our produce with hungry and excited customers.
This year, the community voted Murray Family Farms as the 2016 Santa Monica Most Loved Farmer. We just finished harvesting this year’s cherry crop, and I feel immensely proud whenever our customers tell me that we have the best cherries. Even though farming is tough, these comments make it incredibly rewarding.
Having this exposure to farming cherries has changed the entire direction of my life.
In my own career, I’ve collected many of the hundreds of different varieties of fruit species.
Just recently, I traveled to San Diego to share my knowledge in a lecture about cherries to the local California Rare Fruit Growers chapter. It’s the least I can do for the cherry, considering all it’s done for me, my family, and Murray Family Farms.
In Memory of Sean Cameron Murray 1991 – 2017