No one knows more about growing walnuts in Lake County, Calif., than Alex Suchan — he’s been doing it for 59 years.
The owner of Suchan Farm and Nursery, based at Upper Lake, grows 100 acres of Chandler, Hartley, Howard and Pedro varieties of his own, and manages another 50 acres of walnut trees for other orchard owners.
His nursery, the only one in the state that grows just seedlings, specializes in Paradox hybrids. Suchan produces about 60,000 to 80,000 young walnut trees annually.
The weather has conspired against the county’s walnut growers this season, he says. “The crop isn’t real good this year.” Normally, walnuts in his area bloom around April 10-15, but this year, cool weather set development back several weeks when frost hit the orchards as the trees were beginning to bloom. He estimates that cut production by 25 percent.
Then, there was the rain — so far this year, orchards have received about 15 inches more than the normal annual total of 32 inches, Suchan says. A fair amount fell during bloom, interfering with pollination and depressing nut yields even more.
“Although some orchards are doing pretty well, for the county as a whole the crop will be very light this year,” he says.
In 2009, county growers accounted for 4,124 acres of the state’s total 255,000 aces of walnut trees.
The 2011 California Walnut Objective Measurement Report, released Sept. 2 by the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, forecasts a 485,000-ton crop for the state this year. That’s 4 percent smaller than last year’s production of 503,000 tons, but if realized, it would be the second largest California crop ever.
Although it’s too early to gauge the quality of their crop, one thing Lake County growers traditionally have going for them is the color of their walnuts. The higher elevation, 1,345 feet at Upper Lake, means cooler summer temperatures and a better quality nut than in California’s Central Valley, where the bulk of the state’s walnuts are grown.
“Normally, our walnut quality is very good,’ Suchan says. “The cooler weather always produces nuts that are lighter than in the valley. Buyers like that and pay more for those nuts. But, they don’t like our late-season harvest — because our trees bloom late in the spring, we harvest late in the fall.”
He expects growers will be shaking their trees this year about 10 days later than the usual Oct. 15-20 start of harvest.
“A week of drizzle or rain, which would cause the hulls to split, would speed up the crop,” he says.
With no codling moth or navel orangeworm threats, the only insect Lake County growers spray for is walnut husk fly. Dryland growers fare even better; they tend to have less pressure from walnut husk fly than those who irrigate their trees.
Suchan recalls only one year, 50 years ago, when mites were a problem in walnut orchards. Typically, county growers don’t spray for aphids, either. “If they become a problem, we wring our hands and hope they go away,” he says.