This year’s walnut harvest got off to a timely start for Barton Ranch, Inc. Then things began to bog down.
Unlike last year, when a cool growing season delayed the start of harvest, the family-owned operation, which grows walnuts in Stanislaus County near Oakdale, Ripon, Escalon and Farmington, began shaking Payne, Ashley and Serr trees on Sept. 17. That’s pretty typical, reports Don Barton.
“After starting on time this year, the harvest just crawled along for two or three weeks, and we weren’t able to make much progress” he says. “We weren’t expecting another late finish” like last season.
By Oct. 10 harvest crews had completed the early varieties and most of the mid-season Hartley, Vina and Tulare varieties. However, they were running only three days ahead of the pace of last year’s rain-delayed harvest, which was the latest in 50 years.
Barton attributes this year’s slow-going to hot, dry weather in September and early October. It made it harder to shake the nuts from the trees.
“Up until around the second week of October, we didn’t have many cool, dewy mornings,” he says. “We need that, so as the day warms up, moisture in the hull expands and the hull splits. Then, when we shake the trees, the nuts fall off easily.”
His crews finally started shaking Chandlers — the major variety for California growers — in the third week of October.
“Generally, we’re able to wrap up harvest by the end of October,” Barton says.”But, the way things look now our Chandler harvest will be going strong into the first 10 days or so of November.”
Barton Ranch is a sister company to the family’s other business, Gold River Orchards, Inc. In addition to handling Barton Ranch’s walnuts, this company buys and processes walnuts from other growers, mostly within a 25-mile radius of its plant in Oakdale.
This year yields of the early varieties and the first of the mid-season varieties have been higher than last year, Barton notes. “But the Hartley production is down,” he says. “We’re also not encouraged by early results from the Chandlers, which appear to be down from last year.”
Except for more blighted nuts than usual, the quality of this year’s walnut crop has been good, Barton reports. He’s seeing better kernel color in the early varieties and levels of insect damage have been low. However, the nuts are smaller.
“Nut size across all varieties is definitely down,” he says. “In fact, I haven’t seen walnuts this small in a long, long time.”
Barton is encouraged by the early demand for this year’s walnut crop.
“The most pleasant surprise so far is the strong demand from overseas,” he says. “China is a big buyer, again, this year. Also, we’re seeing generally good demand from other Asian countries, including Korea and Japan. Because of this, pricing levels are good.”
U.S. buyers are in the market for walnuts now, however, they are not taking large positions due to the prices, Barton notes. “Prices are every bit as strong as last year, if not even a little higher,” he says.
In mid-October, Barton saw bids for in-shell Chandlers of $2 to $2.05 per pound, FAS California reports. Prices for shelled light halves (20 percent) and pieces were $4.50 to $4.60 per pound.
“Buyers are a little frustrated right now,” he says. “It’s hard for them to get offers, because the crop is so late and handlers want to make sure they know exactly what they’ll have available to sell.”
Farther north, Tehama County growers are looking at a good walnut crop, thanks to the open fall weather.
“So far everything I’ve heard about this year’s crop has been good,” says Rick Buchner, University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor for Tehama County.
The threat of spring diseases in this Northern California area favors mid-season varieties like Vina and Tehama which open the harvest before moving into Howard and Tulare varieties. Hartleys and Chandlers close the harvest.
Buchner picked up Howards in his test plots near Dairyville on Oct. 16.
“They were beautiful-looking nuts,” he says. “The quality is great.”