MODESTO, Calif. — Walnut grower Jake Wenger has a word of advice for anyone thinking of raising the prized nut: patience.
“If you already own the land, by the time you plant and fertilize the trees, install the irrigation and keep the weeds down, it will be four years before there are almonds,” he said. “Farming is a long-term investment, often over a 30-year-life span.”
He also had some financial advice for those thinking about going into walnuts: Be prepared.
If a potential grower does not already have land, Wenger said prices in the Central Valley can approach $25,000 to $30,000 an acre. The initial amount of land needed for an orchard is 50-100 acres.
There is another avenue for those wanting to farm but lack the cash investment for ownership. Many investment groups pool their money and buy thousands of acres in this fertile area of the state. These groups hire farm managers to oversee operations. They make a good living and are out in the fields everyday. Sometimes managers also receive the opportunity to take over ownership of the farm.
Farmers also need to be prepared to deal with pests, he said.
Pests are a problem. Walnuts can be temperamental when pests are present. One of the most prevalent is the nematode, a tiny worm that wears away little roots. Wenger uses fumigants as a proactive measure when he first plants young trees.
“Blight, which is carried on pollen, can attack walnuts during spring to take hold and have a big effect in June, causing the infected nuts to fall off the trees.”
The biggest summer pest is the coddling moth, he said, adding that any of the pests can be catastrophic to the walnuts without proper management.
“Conversely,” he said, “there is nothing to do about regulations but obey them.”
Wenger is a fourth-generation farmer.
“My family has been farming in the same western Modesto location since 1910,” he said. “My great-grandfather started the legacy when the land was just a dairy.”
The good news is that walnut prices are as high as they have ever been, bringing $1.50 a pound for the marquee Chandler variety.
However, Wenger said most farmers would like to have a consistent price rather than traditional “peaks and valleys” in the fluctuating price market. He predicts much lower prices in the next few years.
California has no worries about walnut imports. The Golden State grows 80 percent of the world’s walnuts and almonds supplies 99 percent of the nation’s walnuts and almonds. The demand for California products is high.
Wenger and his family are in it for the long haul, he said.
“I guess I never wanted to do anything else but farming,” Wenger said. “I love working outside with my family and being a part of something. My dad always told me ‘We are farmers. If the market for walnuts dries up and drops off the face of the earth, we will grow something else. If we are ever forced off our land, we will go somewhere else and start again. It’s in our blood.’”
Location: Modesto, Calif.
Family involved in farming: Father, Paul, who is president of the California Farm Bureau Federation, and younger brother, Luke.
Crops: Walnuts and almonds