Marketing minus the middle man
The Smit family sells its crops at 50 markets throughout California.
After raising seven children of their own, Clazien and John Smit provided a group home for boys for 12 years. Most stayed for three to four years, and the boys were paid to help in the orchards. The first boy to graduate from college recently called Clazi
A northern California couple, dissatisfied with their returns from a commercial packing house, has found success in marketing without a middleman—not an easy feat when you grow 160 acres of tree fruit and table grapes.
It takes planning and coordination, but John and Clazien Smit of Linden, with the help of their sons Johann and Paul, are able to find a home for almost all of their fruit, without using traditional channels of a commercial packing house or wholesaler. They participate in nearly 50 farmers' markets in northern and southern California.
The Smits begin each season picking stone fruit in early May and continue throughout summer, ending their harvest in the fall with late-variety peaches and nectarines and apples. They grow a multitude of peaches, nectarines, plums, apricots, Apriums, Pluots, cherries, table grapes, and apples to keep the fruit coming all season.
Both John and Clazien emigrated from the Netherlands with their families in the 1950s after World War II. Later, they met, married, and settled down in 1969 in Linden, east of Stockton, to start a dairy and eventually raise seven children. With no experience in fruit production, they began converting the dairy to orchards in 1985.
"Our children were leaving home and were not interested in staying in the dairy business," said John. "I wanted to stay in agriculture, but I didn't want to dairy anymore. I looked around and didn't see anybody growing apples in the state. We have a lot of people in California, and I thought it would be a good market for local apples."
Today, more than a third of the farm (60 acres) is planted to apples, with about 40 acres certified organic. The Smits are slowly converting all of the orchard and vineyard to organic.
Initially, they planted Fuji apples, a variety that was generating a lot of press in farm magazines at the time. Since planting Fuji, the Smits have added seven more apple varieties: Cripps Pink, Granny Smith, Newtown Pippin, Honeycrisp, Sommerfeld, Gravenstein, and Pink Pearl, a pink-fleshed variety planted at the request of chefs in San Francisco.
Fuji is still one of their more successful varieties as it stores for a long time. When the Good Fruit Grower interviewed the Smits in mid-June, the last of their 2006 Fujis were being delivered to farmers' markets.
At first, the Smits took their apples to local packing houses for packing and marketing. "But after a few years of --looking at our returns, we realized that it wasn't working," John said.
They began direct marketing their fruit about 20 years ago, first concentrating on farmers' markets in northern California—Sacramento, San Francisco, and nearby towns.
"When we got a little larger, it got harder to peddle all the fruit," Clazien said, noting that selling fruit to farmers' markets is more labor-intensive than delivering fruit to a commercial packer. Nearly each day, they are sorting and --boxing fruit for two or more markets.
It would be impossible for one person to be at all of the markets they attend. John handles Sacramento and other local markets, while Johann spends several days each week delivering fruit to the farmers' markets in the Bay Area. They ship six to ten pallets of mixed fruit every two weeks by refrigerated truck to Paul, who does business with more than 25 farmers' markets in southern California.
Recently, Johann launched an office delivery program called the California Fruit Company that works with small farmers to deliver fresh fruits to offices across the nation.
Through the years, the Smits have learned what type of fruit sells best in the different markets. For example, markets in Berkeley and San Francisco cater to upscale, wealthy consumers that want premium fruit. A large Asian population lives in the Bay Area and is reflected in the market preference for white-fleshed peaches and nectarines. Folks in the San Joaquin Valley like sweet fruit and yellow-fleshed peaches and nectarines. Sacramento shoppers are cost-conscious, so the Smits take their lower quality, less expensive fruit there.
The Smits find a home for all grades of their fruit, even those that are less than perfect. Fruit blemished from wind or limb rub, small nicks or small splits are sold to the high-end Bay Area market as "cosmetically challenged," said Clazien, adding that there is almost no fruit that can't be sold or used in cider products.
They have also learned that quality is more important than size, so they try to grow medium or lunchbox sizes of fruit. "Our market is not in the 80s-count but closer to the 100s," John said.
It takes a lot of planning, coordination, and paperwork to ensure fruit is ready for the various markets.
Clazien and a full-time worker sort and weigh fruit before sending it to market. Clazien must organize what fruits are sent where and track inventory of fruit sales. Fruit is picked every two to three days, with the larger sizes picked first, allowing the smaller ones to size up before picking. Sizing is done by hand, with fruit boxed to meet market specifications. Fruit picked slightly green is left to sit out and ripen for a few days. Apples are the only fruit that may be washed, if needed.
The Smits also make apple cider, in several flavors, in 300-gallon batches every two weeks, totaling nearly 800 gallons annually. The cider is not pasteurized but flash-frozen, and sold still frozen.
They keep eight employees busy year round, and need additional help during harvest. John noted that this was the first year that labor was tight, which he guessed was caused by California's large cherry crop.
"This was the first year that we sweated getting labor during cherries," Clazien said. They paid higher wages this year for cherry pickers. However, they don't --anticipate problems for apple harvest.
When asked the secret to coordinating fruit sent to so many different markets, John answered with a smile, "I think I married a smart woman."