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Walnut Farming Basics for California Walnut Farmers

walnut orchard

Walnut Orchard in Late Fall

Walnut farming is becoming a preferred crop for both large and small farming operations in California. During years 2003-2004 the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) declared that walnuts are beneficial to fight coronary heart disease. Ever since the results of this decade long research by the FDA concerning the heart healthy benefits of walnuts, the demand and value of walnuts has steadily increased.

The California Central Valley features the optimum growing conditions for walnuts. The preferred soils and growing climate for walnuts is located in Sutter and Yuba counties. According to recent reports, up to 99% of America’s supply of walnuts comes from California. Walnut farming appears to be a very stable business, attributable to the health benefits of the walnut and preferred growing conditions in the California Central Valley. 

The decision to purchase a walnut farm is a wise choice given the economic benefits of growing a high demand crop (health benefits) and a limited availability of farm land suitable for farming walnuts in California. Listed below are some guidelines for selecting a walnut farm. 

The size of your walnut farm is tied to the investment you wish to make in farming equipment and the type of irrigation you will use. Irrigation methods determine the type of equipment you will need.  Let me explain:

Walnut trees will need regular irrigation during the spring, summer and early fall months. The better the irrigation method, the better quality walnut produced. Two distinct types of irrigation are common for walnut orchards: 

Flood Irrigation. Flood irrigation consists of flooding the entire orchard with water based on the size of orchard and the depth of the irrigation. In order to flood irrigate, you must own a tractor and disc large enough to move the earth into “ridges and rows” to direct the water flow and keep your orchard from over flowing onto your neighbors property. While the water is flooding the orchard, you must be attentive to the irrigation process and make sure the earthen “ridges and rows” do not collapse and allow the water to escape.  A tractor with 60 hp plus is the average size for disking and plowing fields.

Sprinkler Irrigation. Also known as “fixed set” or “micro jet” sprinklers. The sprinkler irrigation method will use less water that flood irrigation since the entire orchard is not flooded. Sprinklers can be set to only irrigate around the tree rows and not the center of the walnut orchard. Most sprinklers operate from an agriculture well, powered by an electric or diesel engine depending on the size of the orchard. Irrigation by sprinkler is preferred by most farmers due to the ease of operation and lower operating expense. No additional equipment (large tractor, disc) is required for sprinkler irrigation. In fact, some farmers set up remote timers to automatically start and stop their irrigation cycles! 

The common field work relative to both Flood Irrigation and Sprinkler Irrigation is weed and grass control. The preferred method of farming walnuts is to clear all grass and weeds from the walnut tree row and leave grass to grow in the middle of the orchard rows. The grass in the center of the rows helps to contain moisture and clearing of the tree rows improves efficiency of harvesting the walnuts. If you have the flood irrigation method, then you already own a tractor. You would simply purchase a “flail mower” attachment to cut the grass in the orchard row centers. If your orchard is sprinkler irrigated, and depending on the acreage, you could buy a small tractor and flair mower or possibly a large riding mower for farms up to 10 acres in size. 

Besides irrigation and weed control, pest control, pruning and harvesting are the normal walnut farm operations. If you have a walnut farm under 20 acres, most likely you will contract your non-irrigating operations to a local farmer that specializes in custom farm labor. A walnut farm over 20 acres may be large enough to rationalize the additional equipment expense required to complete the normal farm operations. 

How large of a farm should you consider purchasing? The average size walnut farm is 46 acres in California, mostly family owned operations. The size of the farm should be factored along with the type of irrigation method utilized and the equipment required to properly farm. Many California walnut farms are in the 10-20 acre size where by the equipment expense is minimal. 

The life span of a good producing walnut tree is over 50 years. Some varieties of walnut trees (California black stock with English walnut graft) can produce up to 80 years or more! Once you have an established walnut orchard, and you maintain the trees with proper irrigation and pruning methods, your walnut orchard can produce income for years. 

Due to the longevity of the walnut tree, relative ease to farm walnuts and increasing demand for walnuts, the availability of producing walnut orchards for sale are very sparse. Most often walnut farms are sold due to a change in family situations (settle estates) or older walnut orchards needing repair come available. Many farmers will purchase an existing peach or prune orchard and replant to walnuts. Whatever the situation you find, please remember the longevity of a walnut tree and the ever increasing demand for walnut crops make for a fantastic long term investment. 

I am constantly talking to walnut farmers carefully listening for an opportunity to buy or sell a walnut orchard. Many transactions happen as quickly as two phone calls. If you are interested in buying or selling a walnut orchard, please contact me. I will keep your contact information ready for the next opportunity to buy or sell a walnut orchard!

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