Walnut growers step up harvests before expected rains
As the walnut industry is expecting a slightly smaller crop this year, some growers have rushed to finish before unsettled weather was expected to arrive on Oct. 19.
RED BLUFF, Calif. — Some walnut growers in California’s Central Valley scrambled last weekend to get the last of their nuts out of orchards before the rains came.
With a slightly smaller crop this year, Red Bluff grower Tyler Christensen pushed to get his walnuts in before the season’s first significant storm was set to arrive Oct. 19.
“We worked ... on Sunday, when we could’ve gotten away with taking the day off,” Christensen said. “We figured it was a good idea to push through. That way the repicking (of walnuts left on trees) could get done before the rain.”
Across town, Lindauer River Ranch was finished by Oct. 10, manager Michael Vasey said. But he knows of some other growers that have about 10 days of work left to do, he said.
“It went pretty well,” he said of the harvest. “We had the dry weather, which was nice.”
The farm’s young trees were among the few around the state that showed an improved yield this season, he said.
Overall, growers were expecting a 650,000-ton statewide crop, down 5 percent from last year’s record production of 686,000 tons, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.
The agency’s growers’ survey this summer also found a record low average nut set of 1,141 per tree, down 19 percent from 2016’s average of 1,406. But the lower nut sets were good news because sizes were bigger, California Walnut Board executive director Michelle Connelly has said.
“We do see some sun damage on some nuts, but the huller seems to be taking care of it,” Christensen said. “The quality looks pretty good overall.”
The push by some growers came as the National Weather Service predicted as much as a 70 percent chance of rain in some areas in California on Oct. 19-20. Last year, storms that dumped nearly an inch of rain on the northern Sacramento Valley in mid-October kept shakers and sweepers out of orchards for several days.
While this year’s harvest started about a week later than usual because of weather, farms can accelerate the process by using ethephon to hasten hull split, which produces lighter kernels.
Growers have worked in recent years to maximize quality to get the most out of softening prices amid three straight record crops. Farm advisers have offered tips on producing high-quality, lighter kernels, such as not watering too much or too little, guarding against leaf-feeding insects and trying to harvest near the beginning of hull split.
This year’s larger, meatier walnuts could be a benefit as the industry is still rebounding from a price slide in 2014 and 2015 that made it difficult for some highly leveraged growers with young orchards to turn a profit.
The price per ton for the 2016-17 shipping year averaged $1,810, up from $1,670 in the previous year but still down considerably from the peak of $3,710 in 2013, according to NASS. The total value of the crop harvested in 2016 came in at $1.24 billion, up from just over $1 billion for the 2015 crop.