Kings County Walnut Grower’s Crop Reports a High-Quality Crop with Declining Yields

One week into October with about two more weeks left in this year’s harvest, yields in Doug Verboon’s Kings County walnut orchards were coming in about 20 percent under last year’s levels. However, the quality and the price of the nuts are running high.

Raised on the family’s farm, where his grandfather planted his first walnut trees in 1948, the 51-year-old Verboon has been growing walnuts on his own since 2006. His 185-acre farm near Hanford Calif., once included cotton and corn. Today, the land is planted solely to walnut trees. They include Serrs, some as old as 48 years, as well as Tulares and Chandlers ranging from six to 14 years in age. “Walnuts are much easier to grow than the cotton and corn we used to produce,” he says.

Verboon began harvesting his 2014 crop on Sept. 2. That’s a little earlier than usual. Since then the weather has been unusually hot, with daytime temperatures typically peaking around 100 degrees. That’s made the nuts stick tighter, prompting him shake the trees a little longer than normal. Also, it’s prompted Verboon to keep a quick pace to head off the threat of mold nuts, should the nuts remain on the ground long under high temperatures.

So far, the Serrs appear to have been affected much less by the low number of chilling hours this past winter than his later-maturing Tulares and Chandlers. After finishing his Tulares, Verboon started harvesting his Chandlers on Oct. 7. His first trailer load revealed yields of around 3,000 pounds (in-shell) per acre. In the past, they’ve reached as high as 8,000 pounds per acre.

So have his Serrs. But not last year. “In 2013, my Serr yields were terrible,” he recalls. “Just about any kind of yield this year would have been better.” They turned out to be much better – 4,700 pounds per acre, Verboon reports.

The quality of his walnut crop has benefitted from the somewhat early start of this year’s harvest. “So far, so good,” he says. “The quality has been great. The kernels have a nice, light color, with no staining, no mold and edible yields look pretty decent.”

Also, they’ve been free of any worm damage. Hot weather and sunburn had left the nuts more vulnerable to navel orangeworm attack, he notes. So, as a precaution, he included an insecticide with his customary ethephon treatment, which he applied on Aug. 15 to accelerate hull cracking and separation of the nut from the shell.

Meanwhile, he’s enjoying the prices for the 2014 crop – around $2 per pound (in-shell) depending on such factors as size, meat yields and quality. “They’re the highest I’ve ever seen,” he says. “I can remember prices of 17 cents and 35 cents a pound. This is a good time to be growing walnuts.”

Verboon, who flood irrigates his fields, is considering a switch to a micro-sprinkler system. “It probably wouldn’t save much water,” he says. “But, it would make more efficient use of the water I have.” It would relieve the stress on trees in sandy areas of his flood-irrigated fields, which tend to dry out faster than the heavier soils. Typically, these clay soils receive too much water, increasing the risk of Phytophthora root and crown rot infection in the trees.

He likes to irrigate his orchards 10 times a year, or about every 14 to 21 days, starting in early May. “I like to hold off the first irrigation as long as I can, to allow newer roots to grow as much possible in looking for water,” he says.

This year, Verboon received surface water for five weeks, beginning July 5. That was enough for three irrigations. It addition to limiting his diesel and electricity bills to operate his water pumps, the use of ditch water gave him time to service and upgrade his wells.

Over the past 50 years or so, the water table in his area has been declining at the rate of about 2 feet per year, he said. Last year, it dropped 35 feet. Currently, water is standing at a depth of 150 feet.

With production of his wells this year starting to decline in mid-season, Verboon lowered the bowls of his pumps 80 feet to 320 feet deep. In the process, he replaced the existing bowls with larger ones, and installed larger motors for the pumps.

Verboon is one of two of Kings County’s five Supervisors helping to develop a groundwater management ordinance. As part of a series of bills, recently signed by California Governor Jerry Brown, counties have five years to develop new rules for extracting groundwater. Kings County is working with Fresno and Tulare Counties to come up with a common approach for tackling the issues involved with managing their groundwater supplies.

“We want to do this as a region, rather than on an individual county basis,” he says. “Since the groundwater flows throughout this area we want to be the ones deciding how to manage it.”

Two County Supervisors, the county counsel and the planning commission in each of the three counties, along with the Kings River Water Conservation District, are involved in this project.

Water, however, isn’t the only critical resource on Verboon’s mind these days. As in the past few years, finding workers willing and able to help with the 2014 harvest continues to be a challenge. One problem is timing. The walnut crop isn’t ready to shake and pick up until after the grape and almond harvest in his area well underway. “By the time the walnut harvest rolls around, the good workers already have a job,” he says.

And that gets to the heart of the second labor problem Verboon and other growers in his area are facing. “Even though the minimum wage has increased in recent years, the quality of the labor continues to decline,” he says. “Last year I went through 16 workers before finding one that could do the work properly. That’s why I want to keep my operation as small as possible. That way, I and several good people and members of their families, who I know and can rely on, can get the work done.”

Source: Greg Northcutt, Western Farm Press

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