Farmers hoping to plant walnuts join waiting lists
By Christine Souza
Norman Crow of Crows Landing stands in a field filled with bareroot walnut trees that will soon be delivered to buyers. Crow says his nursery is sold out for this year and next, and is now taking orders for 2015.
Norman Crow of Crows Landing does a maintenance check on the special digger used to harvest bareroot walnut trees for shipment to waiting buyers.
Photo shows the graft between the rootstock and the walnut variety to be produced.
Tree nurseries around the state are reporting that they have sold out walnut varieties for 2013, are already backed up for 2014 and are starting to take orders for 2015.
Walnut grower Norman Crow owns Orestimba Nursery in Crows Landing and specializes in walnut trees. He said the expansion of walnut acreage in California is simple economics and that increased global demand for the nut has resulted in higher prices to growers.
"We're very, very fortunate. Demand for walnuts worldwide has sent a record return to walnut growers on a per acre basis," Crow said. "Farmers look at other crops that aren't doing as well and say, 'I need to plant walnuts.'"
At his nursery, Crow produces about 100,000 walnut trees a year and is currently accepting orders for 2015. Crow uses Clonal Vlach, X1 and VX211 walnut rootstocks, which he said are known for their growth, increased yields and tolerance to diseases.
On his farm, Crow is planting 60 acres of the Howard walnut variety to extend harvest. He already grows many acres of the Chandler variety, the No. 1 variety grown in the state. Those nuts come off of the trees all at the same time, making it burdensome for processing. Crow noted that more huller-processors are being built to keep up with the additional acreage.
"Chandler is the prominent variety that everybody asks for due to its light kernel color. That is what the buyers ask for and there is usually a 10- to 12-cent premium for the Chandler over others," Crow said.
The California Agricultural Statistics Service, in its California Walnut Nursery Sales Report, said last month that combined sales of walnut trees to California growers accounted for 11,310 acres for the 2012 crop year and 9,566 acres for 2011.
The Chandler variety accounted for the largest percentage of new plantings in both crop years, at 74.2 percent in 2012 and 77.7 percent in 2011. The Tulare and Howard varieties were the second- and third-most planted walnut trees.
In 2012, it was estimated there were 245,000 bearing acres of walnuts and 35,000 nonbearing acres. Walnut growers say they expect the trend of increased plantings to continue. (See related story.)
Colusa County walnut grower Sib Fedora, who runs a family farming operation with his sons Brian and Chris, said the family intends to plant an additional 300 acres of walnuts.
"We're waiting for the notices on the tree count, but in the next five years it will all be planted," Sib Fedora said. "There's only so many seedlings the nurseries can plant and rootstock they can produce. It is a long process. They've been selling out every year for the last several years. The nurseries are doing the maximum they can do, and there's still more demand."
Brian Fedora commented that not so long ago, the walnut price that growers earned was 75 cents a pound and now the price stands at $1.80 a pound or higher.
Investing in planting a new walnut orchard, he said, at 75 trees an acre, may require $4,000 an acre to establish the trees. Once planted, the trees do not come into production for approximately four years.
"During the days of 75 cents a pound, it didn't pencil. Now, at $1.80 a pound, it pencils," he said.
Jack Poukish, part-owner and president of Sierra Gold Nurseries in Yuba City, said walnut growers are enjoying a good run fueled by global demand.
"Walnut tree sales have been steady for a good dozen years, but in the last one to two years, the demand has even accelerated and that is due to phenomenal returns to the walnut growers, and people trying to get out of other crops," Poukish said.
"It is not an easy entry into permanent crops," he added. "It does cost money and it is many years before you get first production. But the allure of a fantastic global demand for walnuts and the fact that it is a low-labor crop that is highly mechanized, many growers find that appealing."
Growers interested in walnut trees from Sierra Gold Nurseries are put on a waiting list. There are many orders on the books, Poukish said, but people drop off of the list for various reasons or growers have their name on multiple waiting lists, so "there's always a chance you could get trees next year."
"Walnut trees are not an easy nursery item to grow. It requires specialized propagation material whether you are starting rootstocks from seed or from clonal plants that are lab-generated," Poukish said. "Most walnut nurseries have tried to increase production, but it is not a fast increase. Everyone is sold out for this year and booked up next year."
To help expand harvest at different times of the year, Poukish said that through the University of California walnut breeding program, a new, earlier-harvesting variety was released last year called Solano, which he said produces well and has high-quality, light kernels. Once this variety becomes more widely used, it may help reduce the burden on processors who handle the Chandler variety.
Growers have seen an increase in demand for walnuts both domestically and around the world, Sib Fedora said, because the health benefits of walnuts are being discovered.
"Research that has been done in just the last 10 years indicates that walnuts have been shown to protect against breast cancer and prostate cancer, and they are high in omega 3 fatty acids, so because of these health benefits, now more affluent countries are buying more California walnuts," he said.
Crow said he is also excited about the recent success of California walnuts.
"A lot of cultures have decided to add walnuts to their diets. It is great to have that mix of nut crops that the world wants, so it's a great place to be," he said.
(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.