What is in this article?:
- Family walnut business thrives with custom services
- Walnut processing: 5,000 tons annually
- Following nuts from field to handler
- Recycling bolsters bottom line
- Fedora Farms, Inc., a mutli-faceted operation near Meridian, Calif., offers a variety of custom services to other growers.
- Fully automated 22-ton per hour hullder, drier busy season-long.
- Electronic bar coding improves crop traceability.
- Family provides custom planting services using state-of-art GPS planting system.
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.