Small Farms, Big Ideas
September 7, 2007
CUESA volunteer Margo Whitmire wrote this week’s feature.
A smattering of plum trees heavy with ripe fruit grows around the edges and throughout the middle of Hidden Star Orchards. “Go ahead, take a bite,” urges Johann Smit, wincing at his own bite and tossing the plum aside. If the fruit isn’t great, it’s because it is literally for the birds. These plums act as a buffer crop to deter wildlife from eating valued crops like the Smits’ Yakata Fuji and Pink Lady apples. “You want to work as much as you can with the wildlife,” says Johann. “As long as it’s sweet, they’ll eat it.”
Johann’s buffer crop is just one of many creative techniques that we learned about on a CUESA-organized farm tour of Hidden Star Orchards and Lagier Ranches two weeks ago. Both small farms have found inventive ways to keep their land, crops, and businesses thriving.
While about 50 attendees walked the orchards enjoying handfuls of just-dropped almonds and sips of apple cider, Johann Smit (who runs Hidden Star Orchards in Linden with his parents John and Clazien and other family members), and John Lagier (who operates Lagier Ranches in Escalon with his girlfriend Casey Havre) showed us around their farms. Both operations, despite a deep-rooted history of conventional farming on their respective lands, were inspired to make the modern move toward organic farming out of concern for the health of their families.
Lagier Ranches, which stands firm amidst sprawling housing developments in the Central Valley, transitioned to organic practices in the early 1990s. Converting his 200 acres of almonds, cherries, Bronx grapes, pawpaws, and assorted citrus and berries to organic was “a steep learning curve,” says John. The fourth-generation farmer converted five acres of his almonds at a time, sending his trees into shock at first because they were used to a feast of chemical fertilizers. “I didn’t know what I was doing, basically,” he says. The almonds now flourish on a chemical-free diet. Instead of applying synthetic fertilizers, John grows as much biomass as he can–a mixture of annual and perennial clover and bell beans–and adds organic amendments to impart needed nutrients like nitrogen into the soil.
Fifty percent of John’s almonds are Nonpareils, the industry standard variety and the “sweetest and best-tasting,” he says. He makes the most money from this sought-after variety, but also grows Butte and Carmel almonds, the latter of which has the highest oil content and is perfect for his popular almond butter. Since Nonpareils are not self-fertile, the other two varieties also provide the pollen that enables the Nonpariels to bear fruit.
Before enjoying a lunch made with farmers’ market ingredients in the shade of John’s cherry trees, our group paid a visit to the resident weeder geese, the husbandry of which is largely a responsibility of Casey’s. A small army of Toulouse, Embden and Chinese Swan geese combats the invasive Johnson grass, which John says is the biggest threat to his cherry orchard. The geese are moved every four days, leaving weed-free ground behind. At least 120 days before the cherry harvest, the geese are removed and sold to Thomas Odermatt of Roli Roti for his rotisserie.
After a dessert of homemade pawpaw ice cream and berry pie, we headed over to Hidden Star Orchards. Johann described the transition to organic agriculture that is underway on their land. He talked about what it takes for a small farm to survive in a globalized food system and emphasized the importance of finding reliable local markets. The ranch depends on farmers’ markets for over 90% of its sales.
The Smits also invested in a $25,000 cider press for the apples that don’t pass cosmetic muster in the marketplace. Until recently, the Apple Cider Project was run by a boys’ home on the ranch, wherein the kids helped create, market and sell the cider. Today, about 30% the family’s apple yield goes to secondary products like apple cider.
Another way that waste is reduced at Hidden Star Orchards is through an agreement with a local hog farmer. Because of health codes, windfall apples, regardless of their condition, cannot be sold. Instead of letting these apples rot on the ground, The Smits give them to a hog farmer who uses them for feed. In exchange, the Smits get as much pork as the family can eat.
In addition to buffer crops, one of the most effective methods the Smits have found to discourage birds is a sound system in their grape vineyards that imitates the distress call of a bird being stalked by a predator. The noises, which can be heard from within a seven-acre area, have reduced grape damage significantly.
Hidden Star Orchards can be found selling apples, grapes, cider and dried fruit at the Tuesday and Saturday markets; Lagier Ranches sells its almond butter, pies and grapes only on Saturdays. Look for Lagier’s Nonpareils in the coming weeks, and Hidden Star’s Yakata Fuji and Pink Lady apples in October.