Many people might be surprised to learn that Annie Florendo, the founder and proprietor of Sweet Tree Farms in Dinuba, CA, started her professional career as a gym teacher. Today, Sweet Tree Farms (Instagram | Facebook) grows 120+ varieties of fruit trees, including cultivars of pluots, white and red peaches, and her personal favorite, emerald beaut plums.
So how did a gym teacher go on to found a successful, USDA certified organic fruit tree farm? You might say she simply returned to her roots, but there were quite a few challenges along the way…
Annie Florendo’s Childhood Experience on Organic Versus Conventional Farms
Annie Florendo was raised in Dinuba, a small town near Fresno in Tulare County, CA. Until last year, Tulare County was consistently California’s #1 agricultural county, producing a whopping $6.3 billion in food in 2016! (Kern County took the first place position in 2017.)
Even though Annie’s parents weren’t farmers, many of her extended family members were. Both sets of grandparents were farmers, and Annie got to spend lots of time on their farms, observing, asking questions, and learning.
Her mother’s father was a third generation farmer from Mexico. He had no formal education, and what he knew about farming came purely through the experiences he’d had working on other conventional farms, which he mimicked. Annie remembers going to visit him and not being allowed into the fields as “men completely covered in what looked like space suits” sprayed the fields with various pesticides.
“Why are they wearing all that protective covering?” Annie remembers asking.
Meanwhile, her father’s father provided her with a different farming experience. He was growing food using organic methods, even though the term “organic” hadn’t yet been officially codified or standardized. Some of the what he grew went to feed the family, and Annie noticed that the flavor was incredible, plus there were never any men in “space suits” out spraying the crops.
A bright child, Annie had a keen interest in science and human health from an early age. Even though she didn’t aspire to be a farmer, she loved learning about plants and the soil, often taking first place at science fairs for her experiments.
She also excelled at sports. After graduating high school, she went to California State University – Bakersfield, to play softball. From sports, Annie says she learned to “set new goals and keep achieving those goals, constantly.”
To earn extra money throughout high school and college, Annie worked at farmers markets selling produce for another farm in her family. During this time, “organic” was just beginning to come on the scene. Consumers in California were some of the first in the country to create a market demand for such products, and Annie took note of this ever-rising trend.
From Housing Bubble to Farm
After graduating college, Annie Florendo became a gym teacher at the ripe old age of 23, and aspired to eventually become a school administrator. Laughing, she now recalls that the “one smart decision” she made during that year was listening to her brother who told her “you need to buy a house now.”
The year she bought her home was 2001. By the end of 2003, the home had increased in value by 245%. Yes, this was the early stages of the infamous housing bubble. Annie decided to sell her house. Now, with more money that she’d ever had before, she took a career break to figure out her next steps.
Again, she went to her brother – after all, he’d given her pretty good advice the first time around. “You’ve always shown a knack for hard work and entrepreneurship, so if you could start a business, what would it be?” he asked her.
Annie thought about it for a moment and responded, “I’d want to start a farm.” “So go start your farm,” her brother replied.
The Start of Sweet Tree Farm
At that point, Annie set a goal to start her own farm. However, she knew enough about farming to know that she didn’t know very much about farming. What to do? Seek a mentor.
Over the years, Annie had heard about a plant genius named Art Lange who lived near where she grew up in Dinuba, CA. Art had taught plant physiology and weed control at UC Davis and other universities, but was now “retired” and in his 80s. Nevertheless, he still had a fruit tree farm, Honey Crisp Farm, and sold his produce at area farmers markets.
One day, Annie showed up at Art’s farm and told him “I want to learn to farm from you, and I’ll work for free.” He accepted her offer without further negotiation.
Annie worked for Art for two years, absorbing a huge amount of practical information. She also sold their produce at farmers markets, so she got to learn more about the marketing and sales side of the farming business as well as the production side.
As Annie was in the midst of mastering fruit farming under Art’s tutelage, her sister Denise bought a nearby 20 acre farm with the purpose of building a family home there. Denise had no interest in farming, but she told Annie she was welcome to use the extra space for food production.
Annie immediately began feverishly grafting and planting rows of fruit trees on her sister’s land. Perennial fruit trees can take 3-5 years to begin producing fruit, and won’t reach peak production for many years after. Unlike annual crop production (tomatoes, beets, etc), tree fruit crops are an exercise in patience and long-term investment.
As the new fruit trees began to become productive and Annie began to feel she’d learned enough from Art to be confident in her farming abilities, she took the final step to realizing her dream and went out on her own.
Where did the name Sweet Tree Farms come from?
“What should I call my new farm?” Annie wondered.
She thought back to her childhood. At her grandparent’s farm, she’d always loved fresh grapes the most since they were so sweet. She also delighted in eating peaches and plums from her parents’ backyard trees. She liked these fruit more than tomatoes, peppers, or any of the other farm-fresh produce she was surrounded by.
Why? Because of their unique juicy sweetness, which came largely from their high sugar content.
Then Annie thought about why she selected the specific cultivars of fruit trees she used on her new farm: again, their uniquely delicious sweet flavors were the deciding factor.
All that grocery stores cared about was how long a piece of fruit would last on the shelf; all Annie cared about was how good the fruit tasted. Her fruit trees were chosen, to put it simply, because they were “sweet trees.” The name of her new farm was suddenly obvious.
Thus, in 2006, Annie Florendo’s certified organic Sweet Tree Farms was born, connecting her through time back to those very first, sweet-tasting peaches and grapes she ate in her childhood.
Into the future with Annie Florendo and Sweet Tree Farms
Since starting her farm, Annie has logged countless hours in the field and miles on the road back and forth to farmers markets. Nevertheless, she still loves interacting with her customers face-to-face.
She delights in the “funny noises” people make when they sample her fruit. “Mmmm, ohhhumm, ahh… slurp.” These sounds are of course followed by statements such as, “this is the best plum I’ve ever eaten.” Interestingly, she also hears many customers say that her uniquely delicious fruit brings them back to memories in their own childhood, a sentiment which she deeply connects with.
When you’ve put so much time, thought, and hard work into producing a piece of fruit that delicious, those moments with a customer just make it all seem worthwhile.
Of course, Annie is also highly goal-oriented and competitive, aiming to be in the top-3 sellers at any farmers market where Sweet Tree Farms participates.
“At the Hillcrest farmers market, which is one of our main markets, David Larson (the market manager) always boosts my ego by showing me the numbers so I can be sure I’m at or near the top of the vendor list after each market,” she says, laughing.
What does the future hold for Annie and Sweet Tree Farms? For one, she’s thrilled to make new business connections like Daily Harvest Express. As she says, “Daily Harvest’s business has grown and that’s had a direct, beneficial impact on my business, allowing me to grow as well.”
When Annie first connected with Janis and Raphael Garcia (the founders of Daily Harvest Express) at a farmers market a few years back, she’s gone from providing them with ten 25 pound boxes of fresh fruit per week to close to 100 boxes per week today.
“That’s a whole lot of fresh fruit for all of their FarmBox customers in San Diego!” Annie exclaims, proudly.
Another exciting development: Annie recently purchased the locally renowned Dagny’ Coffee Company in downtown Bakersfield, CA. In addition to gourmet coffee, the coffee shop also offers a wide range of other locally-sourced fare, including fresh fruit from Sweet Tree Farms.
Annie loves the diversity of the customers who stop by Dagny’s throughout the day: students, lawyers, police, professors from the local university… and she’s really looking forward to blowing their minds with more and better farm-fresh offerings, including a new line of jams and preserves made from Sweet Tree Farms’ fruit!
“We’re feeding people and providing health.”
Annie is only 43 years old, but she’s packed a lot of life experiences into those four decades. Growing up in Dinuba, she remembers a time when people didn’t highly value farmers. Even in her own farming career, she remembers times when “I wasn’t so proud of what I was doing, being a farmer.”
That’s quickly changing. She’s noticed that people today not only care more about the food they eat, but they also care about the people who grew their food: their farmers. They realize that their own physical and even economic health, comes from the soil up – and starts locally.
“I’ve come to realize that at Sweet Tree Farms, we’re feeding people and providing health,” she says. “I’m so proud of that.”
Good health also extends to Annie as well. When people meet her, they can’t believe that she’s “that old” (as if 43 is old!).
When you ask Annie how she looks so young, she shrugs and says, “I’ve been eating all this wonderful produce since I was little. It’s literally the best quality produce on earth, and I know that a good part of my health and youthfulness is due to that.”
At Daily Harvest Express, we’re so grateful to work with people like Annie and Sweet Tree Farms! The next time you bite into a delicious piece of fruit from your FarmBox, make some funny “mmm-ohh” noises when you taste how good it is, and know that somewhere Annie Florendo is smiling with joy knowing that her life’s calling is bringing you both great happiness and health!
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