Farm tour: Pressing issues at Hidden Star Orchards

Autumn is apple season in many parts of the Northern Hemisphere, an opportunity to taste apples at their peak and remember how good an apple can be. For many, the apple's standing has been diminished by too many cardboard-like Red Delicious apples served as token pieces of fruit on airplanes or at other establishments. Those "apples" are the product of a system that values low cost, shelf life and high efficiency above all else.

Photo of part of a cider pressApple trees will produce a lot of fruit without much attention, as backyard trees illustrate, but it takes a lot of time and effort to make them taste great. Trees must be pruned, fed and watered properly. Pests and disease must be managed. Some of the fruit should be pared away so that the tree can concentrate its energy into a smaller number of apples. Finally, the ripening apples need to be carefully monitored so that each one can be picked when its flavor is at its zenith.

Hidden Star Orchards

The Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA) organized a tour of Hidden Star Orchards near Linden, California, one of the farms where apples are grown for flavor, not only for high yield or appearance. We met the patriarch, John Smit, who emigrated to California from Holland in the 1960s. After settling in California, meeting his wife Clazien (who is also from Holland), they ran a dairy farm for a while until the federal government had one of their occasional dairy buyouts to prop up the price of milk by reducing the quantity produced. They took the buyout, got rid of their cows and dairy equipment, and started growing apples and other tree fruit.  One of their sons, Johann, has been working on the farm for about the last ten years.  After John's introduction, Johann took over the tour.

Many of the tour's themes were familiar: "get big or get out" has become a motto for the apple industry, the farmers market is one of the last avenues for small farms, and diversification — even within one crop — is critical to success. An example of Hidden Star's diversification is the cider business: instead of selling apples with cosmetic defects to the juice plant for a very low price, they are using those apples to make cider on the farm and then selling it directly to the consumer. (The photo is the hammer mill portion of their cider press, the part of the machine that mashes the whole apples into pulp before the pressing occurs.)

Wondering about Water

Smit thinks that one of the big issues in organic farming's future — one that is still off the average consumer's shopping list — is water. (I certainly haven't thought much about it.) For the farmer, it's not just about where to find it, but where it was before it is sprayed, flooded or dripped onto the crops. In California, it is not uncommon for irrigation canals to be shared by several farms, so that the runoff from a conventional farm is passed onto downstream farms. In Mexico, there are waterways that have been contaminated by the dye effluent from blue jeans factories. Hidden Star Orchards gets its water from an underground aquifer, which is refilled by water percolating through the surrounding farms and other sites.

Will we someday see requirements for water testing as part of organic certification? Or farms touting good results for chemical analysis of their farm's water? Or some kind of "clean water tax" on pesticides and other problem chemicals could be used to help fund water purification projects? Is anyone studying what is in irrigation water and what impurities are absorbed by plants and animals?

After the jump, a tour of the farm.

Photo of nectrarines at Hidden Star OrchardThe Hard Reality of Stone Fruit

On the way to the vineyard and apple orchard, we stopped at a row of nectarine trees. The trees, planted ten years ago, are not long for this earth. Try as they might, the Smits aren't able to sell enough stone fruit to make the trees worthwhile. One reason is that some farmers markets (like the San Francisco Ferry Plaza Market) have rules limiting which fruits and vegetables a farmer can bring to sell, a policy that protects specialists in a certain crop from too much competition from generalists who grow everything, or from a market saturation effect wherein every stand has strawberries or another quick to grow crop.

Even beyond market rules, consumer attitudes can be tough to change. With stone fruit, for example, several farmers are known for having spectacular offerings and loyal customers. If you ask another shopper "Where should I buy peaches?", they will probably point to one of the specialists, not the farmer with one lonely basket of nectarines in the corner of the stand.

photo of red flame grapes

Bird Brains

As we entered the vineyard, our ears noticed something different: the sound of a squawking bird, one that was in great distress. Thankfully, it wasn't a real bird — it was a recording. The Smits play recordings of a bird being attacked by a falcon to prevent real birds from eating the grapes. The sound plays at random times to keep the birds from recognizing its artificiality. Since turning on the loudspeaker, the grape loss caused by birds has gone from 20 percent to 2 percent.

The vineyard loudspeakers remind me of an interesting story in "The Mind of the Raven", by Bernd Heinrich. Ravens and crows (corvids) are smart and curious birds. However, in some cases, once they learn something it can be hard for them to unlearn. An example of this is the "food or not food" differentiation. Heinrich tells how managers of a wildlife refuge used the corvid's shortcoming to their advantage. The birds that were nesting at the refuge (the California Least Tern, I think) were having their eggs eaten by corvids. So the managers got into the bird's brains and set up some trickery. A few weeks before the egg-laying season, they carved and painted some pieces of wood to look like bird eggs. They put these fake eggs into mock nests on the beach. In time, the corvids appeared and went for the eggs, but did not find the tasty treat that they were expecting. This caused some of the birds to start seeing the real eggs that appeared on the beach a few weeks later as "not food," thus reducing the predation rate.

Photo of produce containers

Where to Find Their Fruit

Look for apples, apple cider, grapes, and dried fruit from the Smit's farm at farmers markets in Northern California and at outlets in Southern California. At the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market the fruit is sold under the name Hidden Star Orchards (Johann's business); at other farmers markets (and the Berkeley Bowl Marketplace) the sign will read Smit Ranch (John's business).

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