Archive » May 10, 2012
Jammed up: Morrells find berry farm fruitful
By Willis Jacobson, Staff Writer
After their two children grew up and moved away from home, Leonard and Nancy Morrell were unsure of what to do with their nearly 2 and a half acres of land nestled just off Alamo Pintado Road in Solvang.
Their children had taken care of animals – including pigs and sheep, among others – on the land as part of their 4-H studies, but the animals were gone, along with the Morrells’ son and daughter, leaving a lot of open space. While doing some reading on agriculture, Leonard came up with a perfect – and profitable – solution to put the soil to use.
He read a research paper from Mark Gaskell, an agriculture advisor for a UC cooperative extension in Santa Maria, that suggested the area provided excellent conditions to grow blackberries and raspberries.
“It just seemed like something that I’d like to do,” Leonard said of his initial reaction. “(Gaskell) came down from Santa Maria and he helped me set it up and everything. That was kind of the beginning.”
Now 12 years later, the Morrells have turned their modest berry farm into a family business.
In addition to opening the farm up for public picking from June through September – “U-pick” season – the Morrells also make jam from their berries that they bottle and sell at the Solvang Farmers Market each Wednesday. The jams have won several ribbons from the Santa Barbara County Fair, awards that are usually on display at the couple’s Farmers Market booth.
“I told him I thought he was crazy when he brought the idea up,” Nancy said of her husband, “but he’s done a great job. He really studied a lot.”
What started as a hobby for the Morrells has basically blossomed into a full-time job. Nancy is a retired secretary who still works one day a week doing bookkeeping at Valley Haven, and Leonard is a retired mechanic who worked most recently on off-shore oil rigs, “but this isn’t retirement,” Nancy pointed out. “It’s a whole lot of work.”
The idea to bottle and sell the jam from their berries came about when the Morrells realized they had a surplus of berries every season that were basically going to waste. It didn’t take long for them to start getting positive feedback on the jams, and soon people who bought the jam at the Farmers Market were calling to have more shipped to their homes.
The Morrells don’t have a website, but their farm, located at 1980 Alamo Pintado Road, is listed on several online directories and they say they have no problem shipping jams to customers throughout the U.S. It’s cost-prohibitive for them to ship outside of the country, but they said their jam has surely reached most corners of the world by now thanks to tourists stopping at their Farmers Market booth.
“I think our jam has gone everywhere,” Leonard said. “Russia, China, Japan...”
Their growing popularity isn’t just attributable to their jams, however. Their summer U-pick service has similarly drawn customers from all over.
“We get lots of calls from people in L.A. looking for something ‘country-like’ to do,” said Nancy, adding that the farm can quickly get crowded on the weekends. “They really get a kick out of it. And then the locals come during the week.”
The farm, though, isn’t always immune from unusual predators.
The Morrells have a son, Ryan, who owns Pizza Shack in Santa Ynez, and a daughter, Jennifer, who works for the U.S. Parks Department. The elder Morrells say they love to host their children and grandchildren at the farm, though the youngest ones can be a bit protective.
“They’ve been picking berries since they could walk,” Nancy said of her grandkids. “They kind of feel like this is their berry patch.”
Their youngest grandchild made that clear one afternoon during U-pick season.
“One day when she was about 2, she was following behind pickers who had just started coming,” Nancy said. “Well, (the pickers) have a little basket to put their berries in and my granddaughter comes up behind one of them and starts picking the berries out of the basket and eating them as fast as the picker is putting them in.”
Nancy said she noticed what was happening and asked her granddaughter what she was doing.
“She said, ‘She’s picking my berries,’” Nancy recalled with a laugh.
The Morrells don’t have much spare time, but Leonard said he enjoys working on older trucks when he can. He was an auto mechanic before his days working on oil rigs, and he has a couple of trucks in the barn adjacent to his farm.
Nancy has started to grow tomatoes and peppers on the property to help expand the couple’s small business. She said she plans to use the new plants for a line of spicy jams, which she said are increasing in popularity and are a nice complement to chili.
“If it goes really well, I’m trying to think up some kind of salsa with the peppers and tomatoes,” she said, “but we’ll see.”