Despite setbacks, walnuts hang on
Oregon acreage shrinks as California growers lead the market
By JOHN SCHMITZ
For the Capital Press
SCHOLLS, Ore. -- Once a mighty commercial crop throughout the Willamette Valley, English walnuts have all but disappeared in Oregon.
Several factors have contributed to the collapse, said veteran Hillsboro-area grower Paul Denfeld, with the big levelers being a killer freeze in the 1950s and the 1962 Columbus Day Storm that uprooted many trees.
"Plus the cost of hand-picking (before the arrival of automation) was so high and the markets weren't there for growers to keep going through the '70s, '80s and '90s," said Denfeld, who, at around 225 acres and dropping, is believed to be the largest grower in the state.
Another deterrent is the late Oregon harvest, which starts in early November and usually bogs down orchard equipment, making growers miss early holiday markets. "That's where your best money is," Denfeld said.
Yet another factor is the preponderance of marginal, poorly drained clayey soils.
He has taken out 40 acres of walnuts and is replacing them with a new, inshell variety of hazelnuts called Jefferson that is resistant to Eastern filbert blight.
While there is no way today to determine how many acres of walnuts there are in the valley today, Denfeld said that in the last 10 years Oregon production has "evened out" at under 1,000 acres, with three-quarters of those in the northern valley.
During the heydays, he ventured a "wild guess" that production was ten times that.
Denfeld, who markets his dried, inshell walnuts mainly to China and Vietnam but also Canada and Australia, said that Oregon walnut prices are the highest ever, thanks to high California walnut prices.
"They set the price and are doing an amazing job of marketing," he said.
Denfeld said Oregon's walnut industry will never return to its pre-1950s glory.
"There's no way," he said. "California is planting thousands of acres, and their trees grow so fast. They've got the warm weather (making them more precocious) and the water."
Another Hillsboro area grower, Dave Brown, who farms around 150 acres of owned and leased walnuts, said that the last he had heard, there were about 800 acres grown in Oregon, and only a "handful" of wholesale growers of any size.
"I'm sure (the acreage) has shrunk some since then," he said.
Even though he faces the same challenges as Denfeld, Brown, who also markets all of his walnuts overseas, mainly to the Middle East and Australia, is more optimistic about the crop.
"If I could say this market is going to stay where it's at, and with some of the new California varieties that grow faster, we're looking at putting more acreage in," he said.
He added, however, that with walnuts it's "really important" to be vertically integrated, as are he and Denfeld.
"We have our own dryer, we have our own harvest machinery, we do our own marketing," he said. "When you get to pull some profit out of every one of those steps, it's a much more viable commodity."