My beautiful friend, I have got something completely magickal for your today! I’m sure you’ve wondered at one point or another where your food comes from. I do constantly, and at the same time, I think it is something that we’ve become so removed from in our Western culture. When we think of what we are going to eat for the week, thoughts of the grocery store or restaurants enter the mind. These come from the current state of our culture, and none of them lead back to nature, precisely where our food comes from.
California grows so much of the nation’s crops it’s ridiculous. California “produces nearly half of U.S.-grown fruits, nuts, and vegetables and nearly a quarter of the nation’s milk and cream,” according to a Drought Impact Study by UC Davis. California exports to almost 150 countries – 2/3rds of those exports go to four main destinations: Canada, the EU, Mexico and Japan.
The California Farm Water Coalition was gracious enough to fly me out to Sacramento to visit Lester Farms to see exactly how walnuts are grown, cared for, and harvested, and more broadly, what it means to be stewards to our water resources so that we can provide food for our families and the nation.
It was in the recession of 2008 that I realized shopping at local businesses instead of corporate businesses would help my community thrive and recover. One way I knew I could help was shopping at the farmer’s market instead of the grocery store. I knew my city had a farmer’s market, and once it clicked in my brain, it’s stuck with me. Being able to connect with farmers, learn how their crops are grown, and nurture friendships got me a little closer to where my food comes from, and has become a spiritual experience for me.
It was one step closer to the essence of life, which is something I find so magickal. You’re eating lettuce, tomatoes, kohlrabi, and dates from a farm that is local to where your home is. It gives you a deeper sense of belonging to your geographical location. I think there’s something to be said for that. It’s the next best thing to having your own garden, where you till the land, supplement the soil, plant a seed in the ground, and life is ignited into a wondrous being that will nourish you and your children. It’s that connection to the earth that I find so spiritually fulfilling, so given any opportunity to tour a farm, I will jump!
This is Lester Farms in Winters, California. The Lester family has been farming since the 1880’s, and on the land pictured here since the 1970’s. They started out with apricots and cherries, and even have their own bakery in the city! They transitioned into walnuts, but still have some apricots and cherries to furnish only their families and the bakery nowadays.
This photo below is an example of a semi-new grafted walnut tree, but you can see the distinct divide of the graft in every single tree in the grove. They graft the trees to combine their strengths, and to have desired qualities such as lighter hued meat, thinner shells that are easier for cracking, larger meaty flesh, more aggressive growing trees, disease resistance, and smaller trees that help increase the overall tree population of the orchard. The California Black Walnut variety (also known as the Claro) is on the bottom here, and is more resistant to the native soil-borne pests than other varieties. The top is an English black walnut, but it’s not from England! Go figure! This variety is originally from the Middle East, but England cornered the market on the sale of these trees, hence the naming convention.
Grafting is done by matching up the cambium layers in both trees. The root stock that they use is about a year old before they can start grafting the tree. They tar and tape the two together, and pay close attention that the grafting is a success in the early life of the tree. After grafting, they paint the trunk of the tree white to prevent sunburn. I always wondered why I saw tree trunks painted white!
Water is always a main concern of the farmer, and Lester Farms is no exception. Lester Farms uses a variety of moisture monitoring techniques that are actually pretty sophisticated. As a Computer Scientist, I was impressed at the level of technology, and the plethora of different metrics they use to maximize water use.
In the photo below, you can see that the tree has a beautiful texture, which is what I was drawn to initially, but it’s actually a sign of stress on the tree due to lack of water. It’s called “deep bark canker,” which is a disease that can be managed through proper irrigation. This is the first method of checking to see that the plant has enough water – simple direct observation of trunk, leaves and fruit. The farmer investigates the color of the leaf, the shape of the tree’s canopy, and how pliable or springy the new tissue growth is when handled. These are all monitored to evaluate the hydration and health of the tree.
Evapotranspiration is a term that describes both evaporation and transpiration. Evaporation is loss of water and moisture from soil and the surfaces of plants, and transpiration is loss of moisture from the plant tissues. Evapotranspiration can be measured, and is different for specific crops. This measurement allows the farmer more granularity on how much water is needed for the crop. California Irrigation Management Information System (CIMIS) is a network of solar-powered weather stations that measure all kinds of elements that affect moisture. They measure humidity, temperature, solar radiation, and windspeed. Combined with the evapotranspiration for each crop, they calculate how much water will be needed to grow the specific crop. CIMIS calculates what’s going on only at the present moment, so the farmer also has to pay attention to regional weather patterns to further anticipate water usage.
In addition to all that, there are strategically placed in-ground soil moisture sensors that are placed according to the topography of the farm, the crop being grown, and soil type. The sensors are placed 5 feet deep, one at each vertical foot. Because there are different types of soils (clay vs. sand), their evaporation will differ quite a bit, which is why the depth of the sensors matters so much. Stan Lester (the farmer) showed us actual moisture graphs not only on paper, but on his phone! The system is so sophisticated that he can check moisture levels of the soil at any given moment, and if the crop needs water, he can administer the water that he needs. Super cool! These systems are all pretty expensive, but as Stan explained, so is the water, so it all evens out.
This machine is a $100K all hydraulic walnut tree shaker, and is used one time of the year during harvest. It’s jaws clamp around the trunk, but as you can see it’s padded well as to cause the least amount of damage possible to the tree. It separates the walnuts from the tree by briskly shaking the trunk and limbs of the tree, causing them to land on the orchard floor.
They think of everything with these machines! Check out these little brushes in front of the shaker’s tires. These rotating brushes ensure that the shaker doesn’t run over the walnuts it has shaken off the tree by brushing them out of the way. Genius.
This is the shaker in action! Depending on the size of the tree, it will either shake only the trunk (for smaller trees), or it will shake the trunk and the larger limbs (for larger trees). I like to think of it as a body scrub for the tree. It shakes off all the extra, un-necessary stuff, leaving for a solidly healthy tree.
This is the aftermath – leaves, sticks, and walnuts all over the place. Stan says he doesn’t like them laying out in the open like that, and they don’t stay out longer than 2 days, max.
Once the shaker is out of the way, all this debris is blown into what Stan calls a “wind row”. The major sticks are pulled out of the pile by hand and set aside so the harvester has an easier time of separating the walnuts from everything else.
The harvester goes through and straddles the wind row, scooping up all of the debris. The outer wheels catch the outliers, bringing everything to the center, where it’s scooped up much like a shovel. The flaps in the front help sift out the larger debris, and a rigid scoop on the bottom ensures the capture of the precious walnuts.
The wind row travels up the enclosed chute, and is dropped onto a belt, where the debris is further sifted through, leaving only walnuts in the vessel.
A shuttle is on the farm, whose job is to take the walnuts from the harvester to the washing and sorting facility on the property. This allows the harvester to keep doing it’s job, and keep the operation running quickly.
Time is always a factor in the harvest, and the success of the harvest depends on it. There are some things that can set back a harvest, and the big ones are weather and pests such as birds, rodents, and insects.
Back at the washing facility, the walnuts get dumped in this large sifter to further sift out any stray sticks or leaves.
They are brought up this belt ladder, and then hulled and washed by spraying them with water as they move down the belt inside. In-between the times they are sprayed, they have pickers, who pick out the bad looking walnuts.
The walnuts travel up another chute, and into tanks attached to trucks, where they dry the walnuts to a specific moisture level.
This is where the blower is attached to at the back of the truck, and blows air that is about 105-110°F. On the inside of the truck there is a vaulted air-space to give the walnuts optimal space to dry out.
That little nipple that you see on the side of the truck is a moisture sensor. They want the moisture level of the walnuts to be no more than 8%, else the nuts are subject to mold.
You can see here that the truck on the left has a square space on the back that the blower on the right connects to.
The walnuts are then transported to a separate processing facility where they’re de-shelled, and the meat extracted. The shells are not laid to waste either, and are used in industrial applications such as non-skid paint, filtration material, blasting, and micro-blasting. That body-scrub you got at the spa last week? There’s a good chance that it contained walnut shells too – they have many applications in the beauty world, especially relating to exfoliants.
Stan Lester was an absolute gracious host, and we were so lucky to be able to tour the farm DURING the harvest! As far as water goes, the biggest thing for Stan is to battle the mis-information out there. Farmers need water to grow their crops to be able to feed the country. Our nation and parts of the world depend on California’s crops, which makes it imperative that we update the outdated 1970’s water reservoirs and infrastructure. Population and industry will keep growing, that is inevitable, and our reservoirs and water storage needs to grow with it. A bond was passed in 2014 (Proposition 1), which approved the building of dam sites and reservoirs, some of which have been researched for over 35 years, and are “shovel ready”. The bond was passed, and we need to get to work building. It’s that simple. If we’re in dire need of water right this moment, we’re going to be in more need tomorrow. We need to start acting now, so we can secure our future, and continue to feed the world.
What an informative, detailed article! Now I want to get a tree shaker.
Natalie Wiser-Orozco says
Thank you Suzy!!! I’m glad you enjoyed it. That tree shaker is somethin’ else, isn’t it?
Great article and wonderful pictures!
I have questions about the water issues. Knowing how important agriculture is to our state economy, many have suggested desalinization. Can this work for these farms? Or even grey water? Can that work since we eat these plants and not just grow them?
Natalie Wiser-Orozco says
Hey Brady!! Great question. From what I’ve heard in the past, while desalination is definitely an option, it’s currently a very expensive option. I will contact my sources and get you a more definitive and in-depth answer!