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Technology working to compete with rising walnut production costs

Farming has never been more expensive and to bolster tonnage to cover those costs, walnut producers Brian and Chris Fedora of Meridian, Calif., have invested in state-of-the-art processing technology.

The brothers, along with their parents Sid and Margaret Fedora, run a diversified farming operation that includes walnut orchards, a walnut hulling facility, and various other crops. They also consult for other growers, custom haul, plant trees by GPS, and market olives. Over the summer, the brothers purchased a new huller/dryer.

“We’ve added an additional 50 tons of drying capacity this year,” Chris Fedora says. It is a fully automated drying system that targets the perfect 8 percent moisture that processors have requested.

The Fedora family started farming in the 1930s.

“When we started you took the nut you thought was dry, cracked it open and looked at the packing tissue,” Chris Fedora says. “When that membrane would snap, it was dry. Then we built a bulk dryer and had moisture meters that took an average moisture reading of that bin. Now, we’re going to a system that automates all that.”

In the early days they would end up with a product of 3 percent to 4 percent moisture. “Then we got up to 6.5 percent to 7 percent. Now we’re hoping to gain another half percent. The grower gets paid weight and we get paid on the ton for hulling and drying, so it’s in our interest to increase that weight to the maximum.”

Nut quality improves, but it is primarily the increase in tonnage that counts. “It can give you better quality because if you over-dry the nut, the meat will go rancid if you cook the oil in that meat,” Chris Fedora says. “But the real benefits come from a heavier product. UC Davis did a study that showed for every percent of moisture you lose, you’re losing 50 pounds per ton. For a grower with several hundred tons — lost weight adds up.”

Even so, it’s an ambitious investment considering the challenges facing agriculture today.

“We’re getting hammered from all sides,” Brian Fedora says. “We are price takers, not price makers. Our fuel has almost doubled from last year. Fertilizer and chemicals are a spot market now.

“In the past you could call and get a quote that was good for 30 days. Now that price is only good for today. Fuel has gotten so expensive that you no longer have 30 days to pay your fuel bill. When they deliver fuel now, you have ten days to pay. The companies brokering fuel can’t wait 30 days to pay their bills, so it all gets passed down to the grower.”

Fortunately, it has been a fairly good year for walnut growers, except for spotty early season problems.

“We have blocks that had a lot of frost damage earlier in the season, but the blocks that are producing are doing so very heavily in a lot of the varieties,” says Janine Hasey, University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor for Yuba and Sutter counties. “Walnuts are cyclical. The last two years have not been that good, so it was a good guess they might be good this year.”

Pest pressure was mostly light. “It was a normal or below normal year in terms of codling moth,” Brian says. “Blight, which affects the earlier varieties, wasn’t much of a problem because we didn’t have much early moisture. It’s been a very mild summer. I think all the smoke from the fires actually helped.”

Walnut growers are expecting a good harvest. The latest estimate from the National Agricultural Statistics Service pegs the crop at a record 375,000 tons. That is about 15 percent larger than 2007’s relatively light 325,000-ton harvest. Forecasters based the estimate on a survey conducted last month of nearly 1,400 walnut trees statewide.

Even with the increased volume, the Fedora’s are very bullish on walnuts.

“The export outlook is pretty good right now, and I think it looks good for the future,” Chris Fedora says. “As these nuts get into some of the foreign markets, their desire for that flavor increases, and that drives demand. I think walnuts have ridden on the shirttails of the almond industry. Walnuts are 10 years behind almonds, but we’re catching up. The health benefits are outstanding and that’s helped stir consumer interest.”

As harvest wraps up sometime in November, the Fedora’s will begin pruning. With 2,000 acres of orchards, it’s a juggling act to get across all the acreage.

“In a perfect world, you’re waiting until the end of March to prune, but we just don’t have that time,” Brian says. “The worst thing is not to have finished pruning when they start pushing. However, if you prune too early in the season and get a frost it will burn back from where you cut and freeze back down into that stem.”

Nutrient sampling is also a critical element — not only in the fall, but also through the season. The Fedoras take soil and tissue samples periodically.

“It is so much of a science now,” Brian Fedora says. “I used to call Janine and ask her a question. Now I have to read and study up a week before I call just to ask the right questions. It used to be mostly about nitrogen. Now, we’re always trying to hit the micronutrients right on target. We’re usually mixing micronutrients with a pesticide application.”

With harvest rapidly approaching, hull split is very environmentally sensitive in the fall, Hasey says. “Other crops such as peaches are more predictable.”

“It’s almost area specific and dirt specific,” Brian Fedora says.

“We have two blocks of Serrs that are a half mile apart and every year they are different. One year, one block will be earlier. The next year the other one will be earlier, and then some years they both have hull split at the same time. You just never know.”

Chandler remains the dominant California walnut variety, according to Hasey. However, some growers are planting earlier varieties to ease the congestion for handlers at harvest. The biggest problem now is finding trees.

“You can’t get trees,” Chris Fedora says. “They’ve sold out until 2010.”

The Fedoras believe this is a good sign for the industry and they are betting on the next decade by investing in high tech equipment and more detailed analysis of every input the crop needs.

“You have to keep up or you’re going to be left behind,” Brian Fedora says.

TAGS: Tree Nuts
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