Almonds, rice and walnuts have formed the basis of an enduring partnership between Gary Anderson and Charles Demmer, Willows, Calif. Their Glenn County farm is located in part of the area of natural flatlands, which straddle the Sacramento River in northern California, and has proven to be a productive and profitable environment for a three-crop combination.
Together, these partners grow some 1,500 acres of rice, 600 acres of walnuts and 500 acres of almonds. They also rotate another 700 acres of ground between alfalfa, and row crops, like sunflowers, corn and dry beans, such as lima or kidney beans.
Before they began cutting back on their acreage in 2001, the two farmed on a much larger scale. “Due to poor prices for our row crops, we weren’t coming out ahead financially so we ended our leases on several ranches,” Demmer says. “Also we wanted to have more time to do a better job in our rice fields and orchards.” They, along with their full-time rice and orchard crews and some seasonal, help handle all the field work, except for rice seeding, spraying some of their herbicides and baling their hay.
Their partnership reflects not only their common interests in farming, but also their family ties. The business traces back to their father-in-law, Tom Ratliff, who began growing rice, sugar beets and other row crops near Bayliss in the early 1950s. “He began buying land in the 1960s and made some really good land acquisitions to get this ranch up and going,” says Anderson, who teamed up with Ratliff and Demmer in 1985. Demmer began farming with Ratliff 15 years earlier.”
Maintaining their successful partnership over the years has been a matter of paying attention to details. “It takes good management of all aspects of the operation,” Anderson says. “That also means watching expenses closely so that you don’t overspend here and there.”
Anderson and Demmer are satisfied with the current crop mix and size of their operation. Because of the availability of water from their irrigation district, they have no plans to reduce their rice acreage. The mix of walnuts and almonds helps spread the risks of poor weather or a poor market affecting one or the other of their nut crops. What’s more, the harvest activities of the three crops dovetail to minimize logistical challenges.
“In terms of acreage, we’re just about right,” Anderson says. “We’re not interested in expanding because we don’t want to spread ourselves too thin. What we have now keeps us both pretty busy.”
Anderson looks after the orchards and the hulling and drying operations, while Demmer is responsible for the rice and row crop production. They grow medium-grain rice. This type of rice accounts for more than 90 percent of California’s annual rice production. When the final figures for this past year are in, the state’s rice growers are expected to have harvested 45.8 million cwt. of short-, medium- and long-grain rice from 566,000 acres. That would be a 4 percent smaller crop than in 2009 when California farmers harvested their second largest rice crop ever. (Their biggest was the 50.8-million cwt. crop in 2004.)
Demmer’s rice fields are seeded by air on mostly loamy clay soils. Water for the paddies comes from the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District. The largest district in the Sacramento Valley, its water rights on the Sacramento River date back to 1883.
“The rest of our ground is all on well water,” Demmer says. “It’s difficult to pump enough water, at least in this area, to keep a rice field flooded. So, we’re slowly converting our non-rice ground to tree nut orchards.”
Unlike growers west of I-5, Demmer’s and Anderson’s wells have been providing adequate amounts of water for their walnut and almond trees, even during the recent three-year drought, he notes. All the trees are on sprinkler systems except for one flood-irrigated block and one that is drip irrigated.
Water hasn’t been a problem for their rice fields, either. “Because so much of our district’s water is on water rights, usually we have no trouble getting our full allotment of water for our rice,” Demmer says. “Even in some droughts, we have a good chance of getting at least 75 percent of our water.”
The partners grow the M-206 variety, which matures seven to eight days earlier than some of the other Calrose quality medium-grain rice. This past season their rice yields were down a little from 2009, averaging about 81 sacks (100 pounds each) per acre. That’s right at the statewide average yield forecast issued by the California Field Office of the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics on Nov. 9.
A number of growers in the area fared better, reporting yields in the 90-sack-per-acre range, Demmer says. Still, he achieved higher yields than those who planted late maturing varieties. “Those growers had trouble producing a good crop, because of the cool, wet weather last year.”
Managing the tree nut side of the partnership was a natural move for Anderson, who grew up on his family’s walnut farm. He and Demmer first ventured into walnut production in 1991 when they bought a 160-acre field with a solid set sprinkler system. It had been an almond orchard before the previous owner replaced the trees with dry beans.
“It was a really heavy piece of ground that hadn’t been leveled very well,” Anderson recalls. “Due to a series of springs with a lot of rain, the ground stayed too wet, killing the trees. So, we leveled the field to improve drainage and put in walnuts, which can handle wetter soils than can almonds. Those trees have done well.”
The two partners planted their first almonds in 1994. Today, about half the trees are Nonpareil, while Carmel and Butte each represent a quarter of the total. Although top meat yields last year were around 2,000 pounds per acre, overall, their almond yields averaged about 1,700 pounds per acres in 2009, Anderson says. Meat yields of their 2010 crop averaged 100 pounds per acre less.
In 2009, the in-shell yield of their youngest producing walnuts, six-year old Howards, was about 1 ton per acre. Last year, production of those trees tripled. Anderson expects their production to double annually until they reach their full potential in four years.
Meanwhile, the in-shell yield of their 14-year-old Hartleys in 2010 was a very respectable 2.5 tons per acre or better, Anderson reports. Untimely rains the past two seasons have marred yields of the oldest trees, 17-year-old Chandlers, the last to be harvested. “The quality was real good with desirable light-colored nuts, until we got caught with one and a half inches of rain in 2009 and 2010,” Anderson says. “This year, in-shell yields dropped a little to around 3.7 tons per acre.” Nut meat yields ranged from 48 percent for the Howard variety, 47 percent for Chandler before dropping to 44 percent after the rains and 42 percent for Hartley, he notes.
Also, Anderson has been trying a new variety, Gillet. Developed by the University of California, it leafs out a week or more before Howard or Hartley and has a very low blight score. He planted 34 acres of it initially, grafting 17 acres in 2004 and another 17 acres a year later. “They seem to be producing some pretty good nuts,” Anderson says. “We harvested the first grafting for the second time in 2010 and those 17 acres produced 12 tons (in-shell). That’s not bad. Ninety percent of them were mammoth size and pretty light in color, too. I don’t know if they’ll keep that kind of production up. Usually, as walnut trees get older, they put on more nuts but size of the nuts goes down.”
Anderson has also harvested a few nuts from the second Gillet grafting, which began producing for the first time in 2010.
Gillets mature a little earlier than Hartley and Howard and produce a good meat yield, he notes. In fact, meat yield of his original six-year-old block was 51 percent in 2009 and 48 percent last year. “Thin shells are typical for younger walnut trees,” he says. “The shells of our Gillets are still real thin. When we run them through the huller they break very easily. It may be a seal problem. We don’t know. However, we think the shell will harden as the trees get older. It may be another three years before we decide if we want to plant more of them.”