Science fertilizes orchard's profit

Tim Hearden/Capital Press Hal Crain, right, talks with University of California Cooperative Extension Farm Advisor Rick Buchner about the trees growing from cloned rootstock in the Crain familyÕs Northern California orchard.

Hal Crain says partnerships with researchers keep him ahead of the curve


Capital Press

LOS MOLINOS, Calif. -- It's been nearly two decades since Hal Crain graduated from college, but the learning has never really ended.

Crain, 40, is president of farming operations for one of Northern California's premier in-shell and shelled walnut operations and still gets plenty of help from the academic world.

He has been working with University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisors on various research projects, most recently the planting of cloned rootstock that will grow pest- and rot-resistant trees.

Crain Ranch has also been using UC-developed phero-mone puff devices that hinder mating of the codling moth, a destructive orchard pest.

For Crain, taking part in the university studies and applying the knowledge to the business offers a way to stay ahead of the curve in a rapidly changing industry.

"If we are involved in the experiments, we can see the results firsthand," Crain said. "A lot of the cultural changes that we've made are from the work that was done at universities."

Crain Ranch is part of a larger family-owned business called Crain Orchards Inc., which is one of the largest growers and distributors of English walnuts in the West.

Funded by Hal's parents, Charles and Alice Crain, the operation includes a walnut-shelling division run by Hal's brother Charles Jr. Another brother, William, handles marketing for the business.

Though he grew up in farming, Hal Crain thought he'd go into the auto business after graduating in 1991 from California Polytechnic University-San Luis Obispo with a degree in industrial technology.

But after a brief stint as a quality control engineer for Toyota, he realized that the farm was his home.

"That's what gave me the incentive to go 100 percent into farming," he said. "I had had an inclination that I wanted to go into farming, but I wasn't sure. ... I probably learned more in that short stretch (at Toyota) than I ever had, but it was not something I wanted to do all my life."

When Crain returned to Los Molinos, he thought he'd go into the marketing and packaging side of the business, he said.

"But we were in an ag expansion phase at that time, and I started a project" overseeing growth of the new orchards, he said. "It's hard to get me away from that now."

Crain has long kept university advisors close to his work. For instance, a deficit-irrigation study in one of the family's orchards revealed that walnuts are not very tolerant to moisture stress, so there aren't lots of opportunities to save water.

Data from that study "ended up being a big part of our irrigation management," Crain said.

With Crain's cooperation, UC researchers installed cabinets in one of the orchards that make a puff of pheromone every 15 minutes, saturating the air with natural chemicals that tamper with a codling moth's ability to mate and lay eggs.

For two years in a row, the orchard has shown good codling moth suppression, and the lack of conventional pesticides often used by farmers to kill the moth has allowed other natural predators to thrive, said Rick Buchner, a UC researcher and farm advisor based in nearby Red Bluff, Calif.

Success in farming relies on change and innovation, Crain said, and innovation in growing crops tends to come from universities. Rapid industry changes keep farming interesting "as long as you stay on top of it," he said.

"If you don't stay on top of it, it can be intimidating," he said.

Without working with the experts, "instead of making 10 big improvements in the last 10 years, I might have made one big step," Crain said. "With the rootstock trials, I'm going to gain four or five years of knowledge (right away) instead of just waiting for the results."

Harold Morris "Hal" Crain

Occupation: President of farming operations, Crain Ranch

Location: Los Molinos, Calif.

Age: 40

Education: Bachelor's degree in industrial technology from California Polytechnic University-San Luis Obispo, 1991

Family: Wife, Kerry, and three sons

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