Optimism guarded due to water concerns

Last year was the heaviest crop to date for Hudelson Company’s 100 acres of relatively young walnut orchards near Modesto, Calif.

Company Manager Darren Ventura says the walnuts are split evenly between Chandler and Tulare. The five-year-old Tulare block produced an average of about 1,850 pounds of nuts per acre, while yields of the 10-year old Chandlers averaged about 6,500 pounds.

“This year we might be a little under that,” Ventura says. “Our walnuts skated through a frost that hurt our almonds — we have 100 acres of those also — and right now the walnuts are looking pretty good. We had a good bloom and the trees set a fair amount of doubles and even some triple nuts.”

Three years ago, he planted an experimental eight-acre block of Chandlers in a hedgerow pattern, with a 12 x 24-foot spacing. The row spacing of the trees is the same as his other walnuts, but the spacing within the rows is much closer.

“We’re doubling the amount of trees per acre to see if we can get higher yields earlier in production,” he says.

Currently, Ventura has the water he needs for his trees. The Chandlers, on solid-set sprinklers, are irrigated with water from a deep well. But, he’s concerned about the prospects for the Tulares, which are on low-volume sprinklers. That field is next to the Stanislaus River, from which the farm has been drawing irrigation water for nearly 40 years.

“There’s more and more talk about restricting use of this water in order to increase flows for spawning salmon and other fish and to prevent any flush-back of fertilizers and chemicals from irrigation systems connected to the river,” he says.

“Water, energy and environmental regulations are our biggest concerns. But, we make our living from the land and water, and we don’t want to do anything that harms them. For example, we have backflow restrictions to prevent introducing any chemicals into the river.“

He is spending $35,000 to put in a new well as an alternative source of water for his Tulare block. “That’s a huge expense for us,” Ventura says. “Even if we have to take a loss to install that well, we have to do it to make sure our trees have the water they need.”

One way Ventura is controlling other rising costs is by substituting dormant pesticide sprays for preventive applications.

“We don’t spray for a pest until we actually see signs of it,” he says. “Last year, we had an influx of husk fly just before harvest, so we applied ethephon to speed up hull split and harvest to reduce infestation.”

TAGS: Tree Nuts
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