hat we do in fresh produce is greater than art, because we live our lives in it.
I borrowed this line from Stanley Tucci, true, because it aligned perfectly with another line I heard closer to home.
“Whenever I would see a person eating an apple I would think to myself, ‘I wonder if that apple was off a tree in one of our orchards.’” In one sentence, Jim Thomas captures my imagination and drives home the magic of what he does.
While his title says President and Owner of Starr Ranch Growers, Jim is more. He’s a thinker, an innovator, a scientist, a son, and a grandson.
“As far as growing up in the industry, I would oftentimes travel with my father, Dalton Thomas, learning the business—the farming and growing practices,” Jim tells me of those first days. “Like anything in life, it’s about the journey and being part of something. To look back 90 years to when the company was founded, I see how much things have changed and how the industry has evolved from the way we farm all the way to how our fruit is displayed at retail. To be a part of this industry, this legacy that has left its stamp on so many parts of the world, is very gratifying. But more than anything, it is to know that I have carried on a dream of my grandfather’s. I’ve been able to grow and prosper our business with hopes of continuing to pass it down through the family.”
Jim has certainly leaned into the idiom “leave it better than you found it” in terms of what he will be passing down—from an in-house research and development process and proprietary brands to wider acreage and distribution, this is no longer just Grandpa Thomas’ farm.
“When I first started in the business full-time, I had a small truck I could drive down the middle of the orchard rows. I’d look up and see all the apples hanging in the trees,” he recalls, and the love he has for every fruit in his care is palpable. “Nowadays, we can barely fit a tractor down the rows and 80 percent of the fruit is harvested from the ground.”
To help me understand the pivotal points of that growth, Dan Davis, Director of Business Development, tells me how Starr Ranch dove headfirst into variety development and its potential to differentiate the operation.
“We’re always looking for ways to invigorate and make our category more vital. Our entry into varietal development is exactly that. Trying to get to the best offer for the consumer is to meet their needs and get them eating as many apples as possible. It’s all about making sure consumption is all that it can be,” Dan explains.
While he certainly speaks reason, I can’t help but think, even with my inside track to the industry, how overwhelming the number of new apples can be.
“New varieties are being developed every year, and the apple category continues to grow, which makes it a very competitive area,” Jim agrees. “What makes Starr Ranch Growers’ proprietary apples special is that each one is developed in our in-house research center and test orchards. We have a team dedicated to new variety development that is serious about all aspects of developing the perfect apple; we are striving for the very best so the final product stands out in the sea of varieties. The story of each apple has to be unique and intriguing to the consumer.”
Perfect examples of this are Starr Ranch’s proprietary JUICI® and Karma® apples: each delicious but with something singular to ensure they hold their own in that sea.
“We have a team dedicated to new variety development that is serious about all aspects of developing the perfect apple; we are striving for the very best so the final product stands out in the sea of varieties.”
Jim Thomas, President and Owner, Starr Ranch Growers
“Our JUICI apple is our ‘lifestyle apple,’ making it perfect for everyone, everywhere, every lifestyle—a wonderful balance of sweet and tart flavors with an amazing crunch. Its thin skin, dimple texturing, vibrant red hue, and unique physical characteristics make it a standout apple on the shelf,” Jim tells me, and the scientist in him begins to glimmer.
Jim is incredibly involved in the variety innovation process, dabbling and experimenting with the rest of the team. And while the Rookie of the Year, Karma, is also described with gorgeous bicolor skin, impressive floral aromas, abundant juiciness, and crisp texture, there is a unique step in sustainability that makes its name more than just a title.
“Our newest proprietary apple, Karma, is just being launched this year to our core retailers and has gained a lot of momentum and attention because of the story behind it. For every Karma sold, a slice of the proceeds goes toward promoting healthy eating for children. This variety keeps you wanting the next bite while doing good in the world at the same time,” Jim says with a broad smile. “We ensure each apple we develop is truly perfect from all angles: taste profile, quality, and sustainable growing practices, which have all become very important attributes to the end consumer.”
While I don’t doubt there is a strong element of fun in these creations, I understand there must also be a bottom line. So, coming back to the increasing competitiveness of the space, Dan is quick to tell me that this is more than just mad science—it is Starr Ranch’s way of ensuring it is a solution to retail obstacles.
“We honestly want to be the answer to anything that challenges the retailer. Whether that be logistics, varietal offerings, or promotional needs, we can help as part of a holistic solution. As the gatekeeper to the consumer, we need to engage ourselves in all their issues and be part of the solution while making life for the retailer friction-free,” Dan shares.
This mandate does not stop at pleasing the customer though. As far as Starr Ranch has come from Founder Paul “Tommy” Thomas’s first plantings, it is still very much a family operation. And families take care of one another.
“It is a difficult time in agriculture—there are barriers everywhere. How we find ways to keep our growers healthy, vibrant, and prosperous is what our life is all about.”
Dan Davis, Director of Business Development, Starr Ranch Growers
“Our growers’ long- and short-term wellbeing is what keeps me awake at night and motivates me in the morning. It is a difficult time in agriculture—there are barriers everywhere. How we find ways to keep our growers healthy, vibrant, and prosperous is what our life is all about,” Dan assures me. “We exist because they’ve had the faith to work the dirt for generations and, above all else, we have to keep them going.”
The people feed the apples that feed the people. It is a cycle, sometimes fluid, sometimes chaotic, always beautiful.
“As trying as life is, we always are looking to the future,” Dan concurs. “We’ve existed for nearly 90 years with that philosophy, and that positivity for the next crop is what continues to carry us today. We’re always growing that next crop and, with that, hope springs for the future.”
His comment brings me back to the innocent awe of Jim’s first words—the ones that drew me in and painted so clearly the art of growing: “Whenever I would see a person eating an apple I would think to myself, ‘I wonder if that apple was off a tree in one of our orchards.’”
What a wonderful way to move through the world.