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Love and Apples

Johann Smit converted his family's orchards to organic and has found the reward in both his business and his family's health.

Many moons ago, Apple farmer Johann Smit met a beautiful girl at a farmers market.

"She was from San Diego and was a shopper and she was an artist," said Smit, who helps run his family's farm, Hidden Star Orchards, a regular at the . "My pet name for her was egret." 

After a few months, Smit begged her to show him her work. She finally gave in and among her paintings was one of a pair of egrets with an apple. 

"She didn't know I was an apple farmer!" Smit says. "This painting symbolized what we were about." 

The painting is now the logo for Hidden Star Orchards and the beautiful girl, Wendy, is Smit's wife. 

I walk by the Hidden Star Orchards booth with its beautiful white birds each week. The stand's bins overflow with Fuji apples and dried fruit, while rich looking cartons of apple cider are stacked side by side on a low table.  

I'd always thought apples were more of a fall fruit, so I called Smit to ask why his stall seemed to have apples year-round. He answered on the first ring and said, "Can you give me one minute to turn my forklift around and park it?" 

"Uh....of course," I replied. 

Smit said he grows apples in the Sierra Foothills, where there are three harvesting periods.

"You have summer apples that started in early July," he said. "Fall apples that begin in September. Late fall and winter apples which are the two varieties I have, and they usually finish by December."

Smit stores the rest of his harvest in big coolers at a distributing location in Oakland where they stay fresh and crisp. It's like apple cellars at the turn of the century, he says.

"You want an apple to breath. You don't coat it or wax it, you keep it at the lowest temp possible. So when it ripens it ripens incrementally slow." 

If you leave apples on their kitchen counter at room temperature they turn mushy. "You can't do that to a late season apple," he said.  

From his small refrigeration base in Oakland, Johann meets his stall workers to load them up with apples and other farm produce to take to markets from Palo Alto to Fairfax. "A lot of the staff is community based," he said. "I hire kids from the community to work at the markets." 

Smit's apples will be available at the Mill Valley Farmers Market for several more weeks and when they're out, they still have cider and dried fruit as well as apple butter and apple sauce made by Wendy Smit. They do all their cider pressing on the farm. Hidden Star Orchard's cherries and blueberries will appear in mid May. By July and August, there will be table grapes, peaches and then apples again. 

Johann's parents John Sr. and Clazien Smit were Dutch immigrants, both raised on dairy farms. They came to California over 50 years ago to settle land near the town of Jackson where they raised dairy cows. They converted the ranch to fruit orchards in 1985 when they learned that Fuji Apples grew well in the climate. Johann, who is one of seven Smit children, went away to Cal Poly to study Business Agriculture and soon took over much of the family farm's responsibility, farming in the conventional ways that his father had.  

Then one day Mrs. Smit got cancer.

"My mom contracted non-Hodgkins Lymphoma," Johann Smit said. "When that happened it was such a sudden realization that everything we were doing was wrong." 

Johann started to research agricultural regions and saw that cancer incidences skyrocketed in conventional farming areas.

"I told my dad, if we want mom to be here we have to make changes," Smit said. "We're not going to make it if we don't. I wanted everyone's health in the family to be the best possible."  

To Johann, that meant transitioning to organic farming methods. And it was a battle. 

"They couldn't see it," Smit said of his parents. "It wasn't tangible, it wasn't something they could see down the road. I had to convince them. I told them I would leave if they didn't change. And now they really are appreciative. They do definitely understand." 

Since the transition organic, the Smits have found the change fulfilling on multiple levels. Johann has seen business improve, his mother's health improve and the community be incredibly supportive. 

"I got to see people's happiness," Smit said. "The correlation between seeing my mom get better and having healthy people eat really good food was really rewarding. Organic farming is not that much more difficult than conventional if you know how to manage it. When you're organic in this region, people are supportive."

"And I want to thank Mill Valley for coming out and supporting the the farmers market and coming out on Friday," Smit said.

Oatmeal Apple Crisp

  • 8 cups peeled sliced apples, about 8 apples (I used Fuji apples from Hidden Star Orchards)
  • 2 cups flour
  • 2 1/2 cups rolled oats
  • 2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp nutmeg
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1/2 lemon 
  • 3 Tbs sugar
  • 2 cups butter
  • 2 cups packed brown sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl combine apple slices, juice of 1/2 lemon and sugar, mix and set aside. In another large bowl combine flour, oats, cinnamon, nutmeg and brown sugar. Cut butter and vanilla into mixture until crumbly. Use your hands, it's messy but efficient. Pat about 1/3 of the oats mixture into the bottom of a 9x13 baking dish. Add your apple slices, spreading out evenly. Then sprinkle the rest of the oats mixture over top of the apple slices. Bake for 45 minutes or until apples are tender. Serve with vanilla ice cream. 

Serves 8 

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