Meet – Johann Smit Apple Farmer
Johann was born in Clements, California and grew up on his family’s dairy farm. He studied Agribusiness at California Polytechnic State University where he learned a lot about tree science. Later he learned about root plantings and trellising fruit trees in Washington. Johann was fortunate to take part in a cooperative learning program called “Farm Days” in California offered through the county agriculture department. There he studied with a supportive community of apple growers who were trying to build up the apple business and were willing to share knowledge with future farmers. At age 24 when the opportunity came to shift the family dairy farm to an orchard, he was instrumental in making that major change successful.
Johann’s goals for Hidden Star Orchards are to run an orchard that produces high quality fruit with a special focus on hard cider apples and to have a business that creates zero waste. They currently control waste through the production of value-added products like apple chips, applesauce, juices and hard ciders that use “seconds” or slightly imperfect produce to make delicious apple products. Any fruits that they can’t make into new products is saved for animal feed, and they then trade this feed to a farmer friend for meat.
What fruits do you grow on the farm and what kinds of products come from them?
We grow apples, pomegranates, grapes, cherries and blueberries on the ranch. We sell our fresh fruit year-round and make apple chips, applesauce, apple butter, grape apple jam, blueberry preserves, fruit extracts and a variety of hard ciders and juices from the fruit.
Can you describe a typical day and how it varies by season?
A typical day, no matter the season, involves mastering a marionette – orchestrating the complex set of strings that make up the business. I need to manage the farmer’s market portion, the wholesale accounts, the production of our apple products, the growing and harvesting on the ranch and the management of employees on the ranch, the farmer’s market staff and the employees at the warehouse in San Leandro. No day is the same, but most involve jumping from one location to another to manage the changing needs of the business. A day could start with a meeting in San Francisco with a new wholesale account, then move to Marin to take time to check in with customers at the farmer’s market and finish with a stop at the warehouse to monitor operations there.
What part of your work brings you the most joy?
I get joy from a couple of things. First, from “clean runs”, or when all aspects are running smoothly like clockwork in all aspects of the business, which doesn’t happen that often. I also get a lot of joy from talking to our customers about our business and hearing how they enjoy our products. I get the chance to speak with people at farmer’s markets and industry events, which is very rewarding.
Do you have a favorite apple recipe?
Yes, it’s called “Incyder Pie”- from “insider” and a play on the spelling of “cider”. It’s amazing! It’s a secret recipe and that’s all I can say.
What are the different types of people you coordinate with?
I work with retailers/wholesalers, farm workers, warehouse hourly staff and management, market staff, trades people and the public at markets and events.
How much food waste is generated and what do you do with it? How do you minimize it?
In our business we take pride that zero amount of waste is generated. Any fruits that we can’t sell we make into juices, hard cider, applesauce, apple butter, etc. Any fruit that can’t be made into those products is collected for animal feed, which we exchange with another farm for meat.
What is the funniest moment you remember while working on the farm?
The funniest times at the ranch have been when elementary school kids from the city come out for a farm tour. It’s always funny to see how city kids react in a farm setting. One time one of the kids pushed another kid into the pool and then all of a sudden it was a pile up of kids all jumping into the pool at once. The teachers didn’t know what to do but the kids were having a great time. We had to get lots of towels and dry lots of clothes before they could head back home, but it was a fun day for everyone.
Any advice for kids on how to choose apples from a grocery store?
It’s important to eat organic apples instead of conventional, since apples are #2 on the Dirty Dozen list of fruits and vegetables with the potential for high pesticide levels. When kids are thinking about the difference between eating an organic or non-organic apple, there are some important things to consider. You can think about it this way- if you pour diesel into a river, all the living matter will die. The river is a complex organic system, which will be destroyed by this invasive chemical. Our bodies are like this river, and we develop allergies and diseases due to chemicals that are introduced into our system through our environment and the food we eat. When an organic system comes up against a synthetic chemical system, the organic system will lose every time. This is why we need to support organic practices.
Also, I would advise kids to try to get all the sugar they crave through fruit, as fruit naturally has lots of sugar, but also vitamins and nutrients. They need to eat as much raw/unprocessed foods as possible to contradict the processed foods they eat.
Any words of advice for kids thinking about growing up to be an orchard farmer?
For anyone wanting to run a farm business, I would advise them to figure out the best land-use value and make the best use of an opportunity. If they are starting from zero, make sure to grow a niche product that no one else is growing. Be clear on who your target customer is and start by growing small. It’s important to grow great products, be unique, determine your market and diversify. Make sure not to monocrop as that can lead to ruin if you have a bad season.