“We embrace technology,” says Sutter County farmer Sib Fedora. “It improves our efficiency and produces higher returns.”

Fedora, his wife, Margaret, and their two sons, Brian and Chris, own Fedora Farms, Inc., a mutli-faceted operation near Meridian, Calif. The farm combines 600 acres of walnuts along with several other crops and offers a variety of custom farming services.

The technology they employ ranges from pneumatic shears, which allow crews to prune more trees quicker with less effort, to a 22-ton per hour hulling facility and fully-automated drying bins. It also includes their latest project — working with an electronics firm to develop a bar coding system for tracking a trailer load of nuts from the field to the walnut handler. It’s all designed to maximize profits for the Fedora’s and their grower-customers.

“If we can provide a level of service that others can’t, we’ll get more clients and more tonnage to process,” says Sib. “Our goal is putting out the best product we can, whether it’s ours or one of our customers,”

That’s where the technology comes in. “It enables us to achieve the highest possible grade so growers can get the best possible price for their nuts,” he explains.

The capacity to take on more tonnage is another important asset in their hulling business. It helped earn a new customer in the fall of 2009, when wet weather made harvesting and hulling operations particularly challenging. The grower’s huller operator at the time was unable to process his walnuts in a timely fashion. So, he sent a load to the Fedoras for hulling and drying

“After his handler got the first shipment from us, the customer told us that he had never received such good grades for his walnuts,” Sib says.

The Fedoras are producing walnuts 400 acres of Chandler, Blackmer, Hartley, Howard, Serr and Tehama varieties. They have another 200 acres of younger trees along the Sacramento River, They also row crop grow wheat, blackeye and baby lima beans, safflower and sunflowers. In addition to hulling and drying walnuts, their list of custom services includes orchard management, planting fruit and nut trees using GPS technology and pruning, spraying and harvesting walnuts. Their clients, whose operations range in size from about 10 to 500 acres, are located on both sides of the Sacramento Valley from Knights Landing in the south to the Chico area in the north.

Although Sib had long done a little custom hulling and drying of walnuts, he began seeing opportunities to expand the operation in the early 1990s. Up until then, even small mom-and-pop growers had their own huller-dryer, he notes. However, this aging equipment was starting to break down and many growers couldn’t justify the much higher cost of the latest hulling and drying machinery to replace the worn out units. Also, at about that same time, many new walnut orchards were beginning to produce significantly. So, Sib installed a new, larger huller and saw his hulling capacity jump from 1,000 nuts per hour with his previous equipment to 5 tons per hour with his new line.

“We thought we might be able to make the huller profitable by growing this side of our business,” he says.

In 1996, he put up a new building for handling nuts in bulk rather than in 1,100-pound capacity bins and installed pits for receiving the nuts. He also replaced his 11 harvest buggies, each of which held about 4,000 to 5,000 pounds of nuts with three sets of 25-ton capacity double-trailers.

At the time, the Fedoras were growing 150 acres of walnuts. Harvesting operations kept at least two pickup trucks running all day long pulling the nut buggies between the field and the huller, Sib says. Switching to the trailers and the bulk handling really made a difference.

“A neighbor who had his own huller and dryer happened to be driving by just as we pulled over the pits to dump our very first trailer load of nuts,” Sib recalls. “He drove into the yard and told us he was tired of fooling with his nut buggies and that we could hull and dry all of his nuts. That’s how we got started with a custom work in a serious way.”

Walnut processing: 5,000 tons annually

Initially, the Fedoras processed about 350 to 500 tons of walnuts per season. That has since grown to more than 5,000 tons annually, he reports.

During the walnut harvest, Brian is in charge. Typically, he and his crews pick up about 25 acres of trees per day. Chris manages the hulling and drying.

They operate 12 hours a day, seven days a week, normally from early September to the first few days of November. “Chris and I may not see each other for three or four days at a time,” Brian says. “But, we’re in constant communication by phone to see if there’s anything we can do better to make sure that we’re putting out the best possible quality nuts as efficiently as possible. We’re trying to find the right balance between maximizing production in the field and not plugging the plant.”

For example, if the nuts are showing up at the huller with too much debris, Chris may call Brian, asking him to adjust the sweeper, travel slower or make one windrow instead of two, as needed, to minimize trash pickup. Brian, on the other hand, may notify Chris that nuts in the first set of double-trailers are dirtier and will require more attention on the hulling line that the load in the second unit. Brian can then plan accordingly.

This past season, the Fedoras picked the last of the walnuts on Nov. 18 — their latest finish ever. The harvest was delayed by rainstorms in late October and early November. The first dropped as much as about 3.5 inches on the West Side of the valley. Rainfall from the second totaled about half an inch, Sib says.

This was the second straight harvest hampered by rains. “Usually, we get a little rain in the fall, he adds. “But, it’s not typical to have such big storm two years in a row.”

In 2009, the heavy rains hit in mid-October, the fear was that the unwelcomed moisture could lower nut quality spawning mildew growth, which affects nut flavor. Rain can also darken the color of the nut meats, too. “That doesn’t affect the taste, but consumers want light colored meats,” Sib says. “The dark color was apparent as soon as we started to harvest the nuts after the rain. The Chandlers and Howards were affected the most.”

Managing moisture levels of the nuts in the storage bins to prevent mold becomes more critical after rain has fallen on the nuts. “In a normal harvest, the moisture can vary up and down a little without hurting quality of the nuts,” Sib says. “However, walnut handlers require the nuts be dried down to 8 percent moisture. Anything above or below that level can be reason for deductions on their price and/or additional charges for drying the nuts to reach the proper moisture level. In a rainy year, we have to make sure it stays just a little below the ideal level of 8 percent.”

The rains also slow harvest activities by delaying field operation. This means crews have to scramble to pick the nuts before the late-fall rains set in.

“It puts a lot of extra pressure on us and makes our work a lot more intense,” Chris says. “Everyone is trying to get the nuts in as quickly as possible. In 2009, for example, we lost 10 days due to the weather. So we had to squeeze six weeks of work into just four. There are no short cuts to quality. So, we all had to work more hours per day.”

The wet orchard floor is another problem. “Walnut harvesting equipment isn’t made for working in mud,” he continues. “We’ll try any idea, even if it seems crazy, to keep going.”

For instance, in the orchard, Brian may need additional labor for raking up the nuts by hand if the mud is impeding the nut sweepers. Also, because mud and wet leaves and twigs stick to the walnuts, there’s more trash going into the hulling machines and it’s harder to remove. That means Chris may have to run the huller slower and add more water lines and nozzles to clean the nuts.

Following nuts from field to handler

Brian and Chris, both University of California, Davis ag school graduates, designed the bin drying facility. It features 70 drying bins, each with a 4-ton capacity, plus a 12,000-gallon propane storage tank and a custom-built fully-automated drying system. These dryers are another key part of the Fedoras’ customer-focused approach to business.

“For every point below 8 percent moisture, a grower loses 50 pounds of weight per ton of nuts when they sell them,” Sib says. “So, we try to dry the nuts as close to 8 percent as possible. Our automated dryers take out the guesswork by automatically shutting off when the nuts dry down to 8 percent moisture.”

The Fedoras are working with Woodside Electronics Corp., Woodland, Calif., to develop a wireless communication system, using smart phones or laptop computers, for identifying and following a load of nuts from the field to the handler who packages the nuts for wholesalers and retailers.

“Because of food safety concerns, traceability of product is becoming important for all food producers,” Sib says. “With this technology, we’re trying to stay ahead of the game and prevent any problems with walnuts.”

This new system is based on a bar code label attached to a trailer load of nuts before it leaves the orchard. As Chris explains, this bar code can be used to record such information as the grower’s name, date harvested, location of the field and variety. When the trailer arrives at the huller, he uses a scanner to read the label and download the information into his laptop computer. There, he can add more details to the bar code as it follows the load of nuts through the huller, into the drying bins and onto the truck that eventually hauls the nuts to the handler. This added information can include time in and out of the huller and moisture levels before and after drying.

“Whatever we need to know about that load of nuts we can put it on the bar code label,” Chris says. “This will give growers up-to-the-minute information about the status of their nuts in our facility. Also, if there’s any question about the nuts later in the marketing process and we know what lot the nuts came from, we can trace them all the way back to the field where they were grown.”

The Fedoras have been providing custom tree planting services using GPS technology for the past seven years. They’ve equipped each of two tractors — a four-wheel drive John Deere 7810 and a John Deere 8520 track machine — with a Trimble automated steering system. The tractors pull a custom-built, 60-foot wide, hydraulically-operated marker to cross-mark the field. It is used to plant almond, peach and prune tree, as well as walnuts.

“This system requires no survey, and we can plant 30 acres a day with sub-inch accuracy,” Sib says.

But speed and elimination of survey and hand-planting costs aren’t the only benefits. “This system also produces higher tree survival rates,” he adds. “Unlike a hand crew, the machines don’t get tired or cut roots to making planting easier in harder soils. Unlike using hand labor, where trees may lie around for an hour while their roots dry before they get planted, we can pull a tree out of the van with wet roots and have it in the ground within 15 or 20 minutes. Also, the planters put the tree root ball into the ground in relatively undisturbed soils. It’s a more natural setting than an augered hole, in which the sides may glaze over and make it difficult for roots to penetrate.”

Brian notes another payoff from this service. “Many of the growers who hire us are new to the orchard business,” he says. “Often, because of our experience, once the walnut trees start producing, they want us to do the harvesting, hulling and drying.”

Recycling bolsters bottom line

Although it lacks high-tech glamour, recycling also helps improve the business’s bottom line. For example, waste water from the hulling process is piped to a settling pond where mud washed off the nuts collects at the bottom and the sediment-free water flows through a drainage ditch to the orchards. Meanwhile, the hulls, twigs and other debris removed during the hulling process are sold as fuel for a co-generation plant. “For years we looked for an alternative use of this material, instead of burning it in waste pile.” Sib says. “Finally, we found a buyer. He blends it with other types of waste to power boilers for generating electricity.”

Chris attributes part of the success of Fedora Farms to the way the business has grown. “Instead of having to start by paying for our equipment and facilities in one lump sum, we’ve been able to take baby steps,” he explains. “We started with a huller and then took a baby step to get a bigger huller. Then, we took another baby step to go with bulk handling of the nuts. By advancing a little at a time, we’ve been able to continue growing without having a big capital expense at the beginning.”

Open, honest communications with clients is another factor in the steady growth of their operations. “We don’t overcharge, we don’t over-promise and we don’t avoid our customers,” Sib explains. “If they call, we’ll answer the phone and take our lumps if we made a mistake. We may not like the conversation, but we’ll have it. Growers will respect you more for that than if you try to avoid them or just leave them a message on their voice mail.”