Kern Business Journal – February/March 2013
by Steve Murray
Murray Family Farms has found its niche in value-added agriculture, prospering in a segment of the tough agricultural industry.
Steve and Vickie Murray have grown their enterprise into a premier Kern County agricultural entertainment destination. Value-added activities, such as U-pick, farmers’ markets, freeway fruit stands, bakery, restaurant, preserves, and on-the-farm activities generate more dollars per acre than conventional agriculture.
That added income is offset by increased inefficiencies and the need for more capital, management and labor.
By nature, the products that the farm grows are agricultural commodities. Murray Family Farms takes these raw commodities and increases their intrinsic value. This is done through branding, direct sales, processed foods, agricultural tourism and education.
What started out as a diversity strategy to offset the volatile risks of growing cherries has become 50 percent of the company’s annual revenue. Cherry harvest income comes one day per year from the packing house. Value-added income meets the cash flow needs for the rest of the year.
The Big Red Barn at Hwy 58 and General Beale and the Old Tomato Weigh Station at Interstate 5 and Copus Road are the company’s two agricultural entertainment venues.
Murray Family Farms continues to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars building pole barns to provide shade, improving parking, drilling new domestic wells, installing a bounce pillow, hay wagons, corn cannons, duck races, children’s attractions, landscaping, changing permanent crops, and planting seasonal row crops.
Picking local fruit that is fresh and ripe increases value. There is no comparison to the dry, flavorless fruit found at big box retail stores. Customers are willing to pay more for fresh, ripe local fruit.
Customers come to the farm markets year round to shop for produce, prepared foods, preserves, pies and fruit smoothies. Children flock to the petting zoo, wagon rides, cattle train, mazes, picnic area, and the opportunity to pick and eat fruit.
“Fond memories grown ripe here” is Murray Family Farm’s official slogan. In addition, the Murray family and their employees spread out, traveling to 28 certified farmers’ markets during the peak cherry and berry season.
A paradigm shift has been detected, where families with young children are taking the time to connect with the food that they eat. Kern County leads the nation in obesity, diabetes, heart attacks, and other lifestyle diseases. These illnesses can be prevented through outdoor activities and the consumption of more fresh produce. More than 10,000 school children visit the farm annually, learning the value of eating more flavor- and color-rich fruits and vegetables.
The benefits to the local economy are significant. Located in the Lamont-Arvin area, Murray Family Farms provides year-round employment to an economically disadvantaged region. Dollars are collected from export and domestic customers, coastal cities and interstate travelers, and paid to the local labor force.
Value added agriculture provides 10 times more employment per acre than conventional agriculture. While most agricultural employment is seasonal and repetitive in nature, these full- and part-time jobs offer training in customer service, use of cash registers, public speaking, entertainment, education, crowd control, clerical, culinary arts, and intensive dynamic horticulture.
Value added agriculture for the Murrays started back in 1989 with the trade of their home in Bakersfield for a farm house and vineyard, north and east of Arvin. Some of the grapes were removed to plant cherries. The cherries were popular at farmers’ markets and received higher prices.
The joy of working with the public at certified farmers’ markets led to the establishment of the fruit stands and farms. Surplus fruit falling on the ground led to U-pick, more farmers’ markets, the bakery and the restaurant to capture value, producing pies and preserves.
Slow October sales led to pumpkins and the October Fun Fest. The success of the October festival led to other festivals – Bluegrass and cherry, Easter egg hunt, and November pole barn movie nights. Permits are now being finalized to add beer and wine tasting, and install Chevron gas pumps at the farm.