I’ve been interested in seeing local walnut harvesting up close and personal so I joined a Winters Ag Exploration group touring recently. The farm is located along Putah Creek Road north of Dixon.
I’ll never see walnuts in the same light again after the tour. Our patient and informative guide was owner Russ Lester, accompanied by his daughter, Jenny Lester Moffitt, who’s the marketing and sales director.
The accompanying photos will depict the stages of harvesting and processing the nuts on the farm, but the other half of the story is the organic farming practices used in the over-400 acres of walnut orchards. The accent is on using natural methods rather than pesticides to control pests, and things like composted chicken manure for fertilizer rather than chemical fertilizers. Lester is one of only 25 to 30 certified farmers in Solano County who farm organically. Organic walnuts command prices 20 to 98 percent higher than those that are conventionally grown.
Lester, a UC Davis grad, explained that some of his trees are as much as 100 years old, and that the farm’s soil is considered among the most fertile acres in the U.S. Some other non-organic walnut growers, he said, plant the trees much closer together to gain more production per acre, but the trees don’t live as long.
He also processes walnuts from other organic growers from around the state, and believes that walnuts need to be marketed better to be on par with other nuts such as almonds.
Another part of his innovative farming is to not discard the tons of leftover hard walnut shells, but instead grind and burn them to produce heat or electricity, or create burnable gas. The farm also has banks of solar panels. Such methods have reduced the farm’s energy bills considerably.
After the tour, we enjoyed taste-testing four varieties of walnuts (Chandler, Howard, Hartley and Franquette). I’m sorry to say my taste buds weren’t educated enough to detect the differences, but the colors and sizes varied.
Needless to say, walnuts are a healthy food, known for, among other things, being rich in omega 3 essential fatty acids. Their distinctive taste is an essential ingredient in many popular recipes.
Some varieties of walnuts originally came from the Middle East area, but others (such as black walnuts) originated in our own Midwest states. California produces 90 percent of America’s walnuts, but the U.S. trails China as the world’s largest producer. Dixon Ridge Farms sells 60 percent of its nuts overseas, especially to Japan. The Japanese prefer the Chandler variety.